Snowtober!

My friend Brandon asked me a couple of weeks ago if he could go on an overnight trip with me on the AT. We planned to take the trip during the last weekend of October, hiking from VA42 in Rich Valley near Ceres, VA to the Southwest VA Settler’s Museum on VA 615 near Atkins, VA. The journey would be over 14.5 miles with 2 good sized mountains to cross on the trip. We planned to camp at the Davis Path Campsite on Little Brushy (Gullion) Mountain at the site of the old Davis Path Shelter. Here is a map of our planned route.

As the date of our hike got closer – the weather forecast looked more and more interesting. There was snow in the forecast for the mountains of Southwest Virginia, with 1-3 inches possible in the area. We were looking forward to some snow hiking!

We met on Saturday morning and drove up into Virginia. There was some rain on the drive, but nothing too bad. There was also some really cool clouds coming off of the top of Pilot Mountain as we drove past. Looked like a little hat on the mountain. There was some white on the mountains around as we reached Wytheville, but it was difficult to tell if it was just frost or if it was snow. We continued the drive up and dropped a car off at the Settler’s Museum. We then took the Bear Valley road up and over Big Walker Mountain. As we reached the high elevations at top of the mountain there was a little bit of snow on the ground and all the trees were clad in ice from the freezing clouds. No problems on the road and we made it down to the start of our hike.

Considering the weather forecast we had prepared well – I know my pack was heavier than normal, but I was more worried about staying warm than packing light. The beginning of the hike was actually pretty nice, fairly level and through a nice pasture with cows. We continued on and followed the dirt path in the pasture. Somewhere along the line, we must have lost the trail because the path led through what appeared to be an old orchard. Little spiky apple trees were all over and the path narrowed considerably. I didn’t think anything of it until we reached a point that was more open and I realized there were no white blazes. We must have followed a cow path and went about 1/2 a mile out of our way. We back tracked to the orchard and found the blazes again.

The trail passed over a small creek and through a nice wood lot on the side of a hill. We eventually reached the North Fork of the Holston River and crossed over the low water bridge – a concrete structure that would be flooded with enough rain. There was a neat old building – Tilson’s Mill, a Civil War era structure that is still standing on the side of the river. The trail followed the river for a short distance, passing over log bridges or puncheons. Much better than walking through the mud. There were some snow flakes in the air, but you could tell the weather was clearing.

The first climb of the hike started and the trail passed over a bunch of switchbacks. The hill was a good warm-up for what was coming up when we reached Big Walker Mountain. More nice views and pasture hikes with cows followed until we crossed Nebo Road and headed up Big Walker. We exited the last pasture, climbing over a stile and stopped for lunch before the big climb. More switchbacks – I was glad they were there because the mountain was very steep. Eventually we reached the elevation where the trees were covered in ice from the storm. Small ice chunks would fall from the trees every time the wind blew. At first it was not too bad, but as we climbed higher, the wind strengthened the chunks got bigger. We reached the summit of the climb, taking a short break. We were eager to get back down and out of the ice shower.

The descent from Big Walker was pretty easy, and much deserved after the climb. The views of Crawfish Valley were great. There were still a lot of yellows, oranges and reds of fall on the trees of the valley. We reached the Crawfish Trail at the bottom of the valley and stopped at the creek to refill our water. Brandon tried out his new Katadyn water filter. It was built like a tank and did a really nice job. Much sturdier than my Katadyn!

We started up the second climb of the day. This one was not nearly as bad as the first, and had a well graded trail. It seemed like there were stepped climbs, with a climb up to a short ridge and then up the next step to the next ridge. It served to break things up and offered very nice views of the valley in both directions. Again we reached the ice zone, but this time the trail followed along the ridge for some distance, keeping us in the shower of ice for an extended period. Thankfully, the wind was sporadic and the ice shower was not constant.

The day dragged on and got on towards sunset. I was really enjoying the hike and the fall colors and the vivid orange of the sunset. There was one more really tough climb of about 200 feet out of a gap that really took the last bits of energy out of me. We only hiked a short time longer, before I was looking for a place to camp for the night. We did not quite reach the Davis Path campsite before the sun was down and it was getting too dark to hike. We hiked about 9 1/2 miles on our first day.

We set camp on the top of the knob we were on and set up the tent. One of the tent poles broke and ripped a hole in the sleeve on the top of the dome. I thought we were going to have a tough night. Brandon had some Duct Tape and we were getting set to try and make a repair. I noticed that the broken pole was just on the end and I managed to take it out of the other pole with my multi-tool. The pole fit in ok and the tent was set up fine. I set out my sleeping gear and got set to make some dinner. We shared a Honey-Mustard Chicken with rice and vegetables. I used an additional packet of chicken to help fill out the meal. I made a small cup of coffee with the remaining water. The food tasted great and it was nice having Brandon for company.

We cleaned up after supper and settled in for the night. I brought along my car reflector pad and new sleeping bag line along for the trip. In conjunction with my 20 degree down bag I was snug and warm. Temps got down into the 20s at night but I don’t think I even felt the cold.

We woke up the next morning and made some of a Biscuit and Gravy meal that I wanted to try. It was a bit strange, but filling! There was some burned gravy at the bottom of my Jetboil, but it didn’t stop boiling some more water for some coffee. We packed up our gear and got set for the remainder of the hike. The trail led down off the mountain and would cross the Great Valley. We reached the Davis Path camp quickly. It would have been nice to have a picnic table and fire ring the night before, but we were done hiking and don’t think we missed it to much.

The trail continued down and we stopped after another mile to fill up on water at a big spring in the valley. There was a whole big area of Lycopodium (club moss) in bloom that covered the forest floor. We continued on and walked through a huge pasture with great views of Glade Mountain. We passed by the Davis Cemetery and the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Holston River. There were some more bridges where there was raccoon tracks left in the frost. We stopped and I grabbed a Geocache that was placed on a hillside above the trail. We crossed through another overgrown pasture and reached I-81 and US11. We managed to find the trail on the other side and continued on through fields and woods on the way to the end of the hike.

There was some nice views of the mountains that we had hiked over and a crossing of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The trail was not bad and wound its way to the museum. It felt great to finish up, taking a nice rest on the front steps of the Lindamood School.

We packed up the car and headed off for some well deserved lunch at McDonalds on our way to pick up the other car at VA 42. A great weekend and I look forward to taking another hike with Brandon in the future.

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