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Trip Reports The Trip Reports forum is for backpackers to share their actual (not links to) trip reports and/or journal entries for their wilderness backpacking and day-hiking trips. Please include photos and information regarding what worked (e.g. gear) and what didn't.

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Old 07-16-2017, 03:12 PM
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tonto tonto is offline
Practical Backpacking­™ Associate Member
Join Date: Feb 2009
Posts: 471
On The Old At - Iron Mtn Trail, Damascus, Va

East of Damascus, Va (July 12-14, 2017)

Got back home about 6:30pm Friday after a few days hiking 23 miles of the Old AT from the 1930s east of Damascus, VA with my hiking buddy Travis from Hillsborough. This hike was interesting and important for me because the historic section of trail we walked became frozen in time when the AT east of Damascus was relocated to the south in 1972. It can be stated with absolute certainty that we walked in the foot steps, on the very same path, as the early legends of the Appalachian Trail.

The original route along the Iron Mountain range between Dicky Gap and the town of Damascus was scouted by Roy Ozmer of Flag Pond, TN in 1929, measured and logged for the guide books the next year by Myron Avery, president of the Appalachian Trail Conference that oversaw the construction and maintenance of the Trail and the very first person to hike the entire length of the AT in sections by 1936. Other hiking legends also passed that way such as, Earl Shaffer the first recorded thru-hiker south to north in 1948 and the first north to south in 1965. Gene Espy, a recent engineering graduate at Georgia Tech became the second recorded thru-hiker south to north in 1951. They where followed by Grandma Gatewood, the first woman thru-hiker south to north in 1955, who also thru-hiked in 1960 and 1963 to become the 1st 3 time thru-hiker. Dorothy Laker became the 2nd woman thru-hiker in 1957, and completed a 2nd thru-hike in 1964. Ed Garvey thru-hike in 1970 and wrote a book about it that made the AT popular. The year Garvey finished his hike only 57 others hikers had completed the entire AT. Since then over 15,000 have hiked the entire trail, and several hundred continue to complete the whole trail every year. Though still a great accomplishment, it is no longer the rare event it once was.

Very early Friday morning I left home and drove to Travis' home where I parked my truck and we loaded our gear and took his truck on the road north to Damascus. We arrived at Sundog Outfitters on the east side of town about 11am and soon after got a half hour shuttle ride on a very curvy road to the Iron Mountain Trail at the eastern trailhead on VA-16 in Dickey Gap. The driver claim he took mountain-bike enthusiasts to the same trailhead all the time and knew it well. On arriving he got out of the van and walked north on the road looking for the trail. I followed him and he mumbled it was somewhere ahead at a trail sign which he vaguely remembered was on the left somewhere... so much for going there a lot! Anyways, within 100 yards he actually seemed surprised and almost relieve to find a trail sign hidden behind a tall leafy rhododendron bush off the edge of the road near the end of a guardrail. The Iron Mountain Trail was overgrown with grass and the faint indent of the path was obscured by a covering of moldering leaves from last fall, it wasn't encouraging. Back at the van Travis and I grabbed our gear and the driver said his goodby then made a hasty crunching getaway in the direction of Damascus on a nearby gravel road.

With me in the lead we scooted behind the bush and plunged into the woods scouting for faint yellow blazes painted on the trees. They where spares and we soon found ourselves vaguely wandering through the brush on what we thought was the IMT. In about a tenth of a mile we gave up and pushed our way a few hundred yards through the woods onto the gravel road the van driver had escaped on. A curious look at the map showed we could pick up the IMT by way of short side trail to Commers Creek, about a quarter mile down the road. The sun was out and it was a pleasant walk and we soon arrived where we needed to be. The side trail took us a short distance along a rocky narrow creek and we soon came to the IMT trail junction. A look across the creek showed the IMT was a well beaten path and a rock hop across the waters to where we where standing. I'm not sure where we went wrong but we decided to skip retracing the half-mile of trail we missed and continued west steeply uphill through the hardwoods on a well beaten path toward Damascus.

The Iron Mountain Trail is multi use that is open to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. On the way east on VA-58 to the trailhead we passed Fox Creek Horse Camp, a large facility with campsites and parking space for horse trailers, and being midweek there where only a few trailers when we passed. The section of trail west from Commers Creek was hiker only and showed evidence that it had rained a few days prior to our arrival and had dried some since then. At 1.2 miles we crossed a dirt road from the south showing evidence of heavy horse traffic which turned west onto the IMT. The next 3.2 miles was a nightmare of very rocky former farm road destroyed by horse traffic, littered with road apples and haunted by annoying black midges that hovered around the head and the occasional biting of a deer fly on the neck. It was also a hot humid day in the mid 80s that felt much hotter in the sultry woods. The trail followed the spine along the high ridge of Hurricane Mountain at about 4,200 feet elevation that for the most part was unpleasant, but we got some relief from a cool breeze blowing across the ridge. At two points along the trail veered from the woods into a field allowing views south to Whitetop and Mt. Rogers where the current AT route is located. After the obligatory phone photo shoot we continued on (incidentally, those where the only two good view we saw along the entire trail). About 4:30 in the afternoon we came to a road in a gap at Flat Top twhere he majority of the horse traffic headed south back to the horse camp. Continuing west another 3-tenths of a mile on the IMT we arrived at Cherry Tree Shelter, a three sided log cabin with an extended roof over the open front. It stood at one end of a grassy clearing in the hardwood forest with a fire-pit and picnic table out in front and a privy in the woods behind the shelter on the other side of the trail.

After putting our packs inside the shelter I took out some pages from an old 1971 AT guide book photo copied before the trip. It stated the shelter was built by the US Forest Service in 1960 and there was a spring in front of the shelter. Taking an empty 2.5 liter wine bladder water bag and two 1 liter bottles from my pack I ambled into the nearby woods in search of spring water. About 100 yards down a faint path that went down into a shallow draw I came to a small shallow stream showing evidence of horses being watered there. Uphill of the watering place was a box spring about 3 foot square constructed of field stones with several stone steps going down into the box to the water, it was the nicest and most picturesque spring I've ever seen on the AT. Filling up the containers I soon returned to the shelter and pointed the way to the spring. Travis got his water containers and went to fill up. About 6:30 Travis started a fire to drive away the persistent midges and we had our stoves out and cooked a hot dinner of freeze dried hiker food. After that we cleaned up, hung our food bags in a nearby tree behind the shelter then sat at the table for a while and talked. A short time later a young deer paid a short visit skirting the far edge of the clearing before wandering off into the woods. Eventually we set out our bed rolls in the shelter and hit the sack about a half-hour before “hiker mid-night” (9pm). Just before falling asleep I listened to several barred owls having a conversation in the woods.

Waking with the birds about 6am, we retrieved the food bags from the tree and made breakfast. While eating three deer just visible through the trees skirted the edge of the clearing. Soon afterbreakfast we cleaned up, packed and hit the trail west intending to hike 12 miles to Sandy Flats to set up camp for the evening. Right from the start the trail was in excellent condition showing very little sign of horse or mountain bike traffic. About 6 miles west we came to VA-600, a paved two-lane road in Skulls Gap. After taking a short break to adjust our hiking shoes and check the map we crossed the road and headed west on the IMT, a wide gravel road that whent uphill onto the ridge of Straight Mountain. This section of the trail is also shared use that includes motor cycles and ATVs. There was little evidence of horse use but quite a bit that the section very popular with people on wheels, though that seemed to do very little damage compared with the way horses literally chop up the trail surface with iron shoes

On the way we flushed a ruffled grouse and her small chick from the side of the trail. A little over 1.5 miles east and a couple of short steep rocky sections of trail we came to the Straight Branch Shelter, a very tired looking very warn and misused dark brown boxy open sided shed of a building constructed of boards with a raised plank floor. The front part of the roof was moldering moss covered shake shingles sprouting several tree saplings and about half of the roof was patched with old pieces of metal roofing. Inside and out the building was defaced with graffiti and the picnic table in front was a sad affair of half rotten moss covered boards. The place looked like it hadn't been maintained since the trail was relocated in 1972.

After a pleasant stay at the picture perfect Cherry Tree shelter this was rather depressing. We stopped anyways for lunch and the guide book pages indicated a spring to the front of the shelter. Stepping over a large fallen tree about 15 yards in front of the shelter I spied a faint trail just past a standing tree with an old faint blue blaze. Following the path about 150 yards into the woods and over a low ridge the trail went steeply down into a gully with a shallow riffle of water passing over some stones. I dug out a shallow pool in the sandy bottom of the small creek to create a drop off that was large enough to place a liter bottle into. Taking a nearby leaf and a small stone from the creek bottom I made a “faucet” to funnel water into the neck of the bottle. Allowing some time for the water to clear I filled my containers and returned to the shelter and Travis went and filled his water bottles. After a quick lunch we cleaned up, packed and continued on the trail west.

The next few miles where excellent trail, some of the easiest and best I've ever hiked. There where long sections of flat hard packed sand and others of smooth earth with few stones. The trail had very easy up and down grades that must have been abandoned narrow gauge railroad beds constructed by the lumber companies when the trees where cut down at the beginning of the last century. Eventually, we reached Sandy Flats the site of a former trail shelter, which was struck by a tree in an ice storm last winter and torn down and removed by the Forest Service this March. The trail went downhill to a small clearing just above a swampy shallow creek choked with rhododendrons. The sawed off but-end of a very large tree nearly 3 feet in diameter jutted from the banks of the shallow creek into the empty space where the shelter once stood. All that was left was a bent rusty fire grill next to a raised fire pit filled with spent cinders and charred pieces of wood surrounded by a circle of scorched stones. There where also half a dozen 2 foot sections of the offending tree standing on end in a huddled group on the hard packed soil where the shelter once stood. One of the stumps had a jutting hollow knot hole inhabited by a large yellow jacket that occasionally buzzed in and out of the interior of the log, perhaps still disturbed by the felling of the tree.

Taking off our packs we took seats on a stump being careful to avoid the stump containing the distraught insect. Taking my water bag and bottles after a short rest I went off to investigate a water source by following a side path crossing the shallow creek on a plank bridge. Going steeply uphill through the wood the trail ended at a fairly new privy perched on a narrow shelf in the hillside a short distance above the creek. I reasoned collecting water from the creek a bad idea due to the close proximity of the privy. Investigating a short distance upstream from the privy I found the rhododendron much to thick to even approach the creek even if there was water to collect there. So, returning to the shelter site I took a left onto an old roadbed along the right bank of the creek. Hearing falling water within 100 yards I turned off the road down a steep bank to a very narrow point in the creek. Hidden behind a rhododendron bush on the bank was a five-inch drop-off into a narrow slot large enough to fit a liter bottle. Clearing away some debris and rocks I took a leaf off the nearby bush and constructed a “faucet”. After allowing the stream to clear I began filling the containers which was taking some time and my back began to ache from bending over the stream. Installed a lean-stick under the drop off allowed me to easily prop the water bottle under the faucet without effort and I soon finished collecting water and returned to camp. Because the water station was hidden I lead Travis there so he could fill his containers.

After returning from that camp routine we proceeded to setting up our tarps for the night on a small grassy bluff above the shelter site. We returned to our stump seats with food bags and stoves in hand and commenced cooking up a hot evening meal. Travis made a smudge fire in the old fire pit to chase away the bugs and a short time later we hung the food bags in a nearby tree. After some conversation we headed up early to the campsite about an hour before “hiker midnight” and settled in for some rest. Again I listened to barred owls in the woods before drifting off to sleep.

Early on Friday we ate breakfast, broke camp, packed and hit the IMT west for Damascus. For the most part the trail was still fair to very good the first three or so miles which followed what seemed to be an abandoned cart path along Feathercamp Ridge, up until we reached the side trail to the AT. Not far west of the turn off this section of the IMT had formerly been the access road to a fire-tower at the top of the ridge, but was now in very poor condition a rough and eroded roadbed of loose stones littered with nearly fist size rocks furrowed with washouts punctuated with tree roots in spots. For the next 1.4 miles I couldn't even imagine anyone would chance taking a mountain bike down the IMT without breaking their neck. I counted eight times the trail crossed a winding stream before eventually disgorging us into a small circular parking lot at a curve in a paved road east of town. We couldn't tell which direction to go back to where the truck was parked at the outfitter. By chance two middle aged guys in an old worn out pick-up truck pulled into the lot. On a hunch I took them as locals and approached to ask directions into town, which they indicated as to the left of where the trail entered the road. A wave and a thanks and we where on our way down the road for home.
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