Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cold Mountain and Mt. Pleasant (near Buena Vista, VA)

Blue Ridge Mountains, indeed.
The loop trails of Cold Mountain (6.2 miles) and Mt. Pleasant (5.9 miles) provide a nice day hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the George Washington National Forest.  If you only have the time or inclination to do one, go with Cold Mountain.  It has more highlights than Mt. Pleasant, although the view from the top of Mt. Pleasant is quite lovely.  I hiked both on New Year's Eve Day.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain is a nice hike, but I wouldn't call it the Switzerland of the East Coast.  One must hike a couple of miles before seeing anything truly noteworthy.  If your expectations are too high, you might find yourself spending this time grumbling about false advertising.  But then you encounter one interesting sight, and another, and another, and the hike turns out to be worthwhile.  Like any good trail, it saves the best for last.

Click on map to enlarge.
0.0  Trail head.  From the Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area parking lot (Google directions here), start off on the path signed for the Hotel Trail (on the right as you enter the parking lot).  You'll approach a junction in 50 yards with an old horse gate on your left.  Turn left (past the gate) and follow the blue-blazed Hotel Trail.

0.4 miles since trail head (0.4 miles from previous reference point) Clearing.  The trail reaches the first small clearing after 0.4 miles, offering a glimpse of the surrounding hills.

1.2 (0.8) Campsite at the large oak.  After the first clearing, the trail slowly climbs to an open ridge that  offers good views again.  Just off the trail, in the clearing, you'll see a large campsite just beneath a massive oak tree.  Turn right at the oak to stay on the Cold Mountain trail.  

Almost immediately after leaving the clearing, the trail descends slightly, passes an old stone fence, and across a small stream.  It is generally downhill for the rest of this segment as the path winds its way around a ridge.

2.7 (1.5) Cowcamp Gap Shelter.  After 1.4 miles, you'll reach the Cowcamp Gap Shelter, complete with a picnic table and pit toilet.  What a nice surprise in the national forest!  You have to cross the creek that the trail has been following to get to the shelter area.  

After passing the shelter, the trail begins to climb again.  In approximately 50 yards, you'll come across a sign indicating the way to the Appalachian Trail.  Turn left to keep on the Hotel Trail on your way to the AT.

3.4 (0.7) Appalachian Trail.  The AT junction is well-marked; turn right (north).  In the winter, consider taking the time here to put on an extra layer before moving on.  It can get pretty windy up ahead.

The white-blazed AT climbs slowly with the help of two large switchbacks.  It gets rockier as you climb, but there are outcrops with nice views of the valley to ease the pain.

4.5 (1.1) "The Meadow."  After an increasingly rocky 1.1 miles on the AT, the trail reaches the highlight of Cold Mountain: a massive clearing offering 360 degree views of the region.  I have not seen anything else like this in Virginia.  

The hills are alive! Mm hmm mm hm mm.
The Meadow, as seen from Mt. Pleasant's east summit.
This area must be particularly spectacular with spring wildflowers or fall foliage.  I spent a good long while up here, playing around in the open space, until it just got too cold.

5.0 (0.5) Re-enter the woods.  Here, the trail begins a controlled, switchbacking decent down to FR 58.

5.9 (0.9) Road.  The AT crosses FR 58 (which you drove in on) but you don't.  Turn right, and walk along the road for 0.2 miles until there is an entry on the right for the Hotel Trail.  Take the Hotel Trail back to the broken-down horse gate (see 0.0 above), and turn left to reach the parking lot.

6.2 (0.3) Parking lot.

Mt. Pleasant

The trip up Mt. Pleasant is not terribly demanding and not terribly exciting.  However, the views from the summit (there are two - east and west) are excellent.  

Click on map to enlarge.
0.0 Trail head.  There are two entrances to the blue-blazed Henry Lanum Memorial Trail in the parking lot (Google directions here).  Take the one on the right (directly across from the bulletin board).  The first 1.1 miles is a flat walk on a broad trail (an old fire road) through the woods. 

1.3 miles from trail head (1.3 miles since previous reference point) Junction. Shortly before the junction, the trail leaves the old road, becoming narrower and rockier.  At shortly thereafter, you reach an intersection.  Turn right to keep on the blue-blazed trail.  It climbs 450 feet over the next 0.9 miles.

The Summit Trail made me think of New Zealand, for some reason. 
2.2 (0.9) Junction with Mt. Pleasant Summit Trail.  You can take a breather at the junction with the Mt. Pleasant Summit Trail.  From here, turn right to reach the summit.  This side trail quickly becomes very muddy and wet.  Although the summit is at only 4,091' (per my GPS at least), the ground is so wet in places that it is almost as if there is a permanent rain shadow.  Don't let it deter you, though. 

2.7 (0.5) Summit of Mt. Pleasant.  After climbing 0.5 miles, you arrive at the split from which you can reach the two summits to Mt. Pleasant - east and west.  The east summit has excellent views of Cold Mountain and beyond.  To see anything, you have to climb on top some boulders.  On a warm, sunny day, this would be, well, pleasant.   The west summit is more accessible - broad and flat - and the views to the west were, on the day I visited, stupendous.

From the west summit.
3.5 (1.3) Descend to the junction with the Henry Lanum Memorial Trail.  Turn right to continue on the blue-blazed Henry Lanum Memorial Trail.  The trail begins to climb again on its way to Pompey Mountain's summit.

4.2 (0.7) Pompey Mountain summit.  The turnoff for the Pompey Mountain summit is unmarked.  Keep an eye out for a small spur trail on your right with a 3-foot wide boulder and a tree missing a huge eye-level chunk of bark.  If the trail begins descending in earnest, you missed the turnoff (which is just before the descent).
After Mt. Pleasant's views, I was feeling a bit underwhelmed (snobbish?) about Pompey Mountain's.
You only have to walk 50 yards off the main trail to reach the summit.  After the Pompey Mountain summit, the trail drops 400 feet and then climbs 200 feet, before entering the easy and relatively straight 0.7 miles downhill back to the parking lot. 

5.9 (1.7) Parking lot.