The LM W1: Elliott Knob tripped proved to be anything but the typical low mileage trip. In addition to the expansive views from Elliott Knob and the surrounding ridge, the DCUL gang experienced a healthy dose of snow, ice, and route-finding. Cassie, Bridget, Logan, Bryan, Jeremy, Karine, and Jo carpooled in three vehicles from the Vienna Kiss-and-Ride to the route-end trailhead where, arriving at 10:30, they tagged up with Gen and Erik who drove from Charlottesville. After piling into two vehicles the group departed towards the route-start trailhead. The forecast for the trip had called for freezing rain in the morning transitioning into partly cloudy skies Saturday evening followed by snowfall Sunday evening. Fortunately, the clouds cleared up along the drive and the temps settled in the mid-to-high 40’s throughout the day.
Starting at the Chimney Hollow trailhead, the group encountered its first set of obstacles with a few stream crossings and muddy trail sections that required some rock hopping. The wet start to the trail was followed with a long uphill to gain the ridge of Crawford Mountain. Along this stretch we had the neat experience of hiking through what seemed like a giant ice dispenser. Frost from the earlier freezing rain had began to melt and fall from the surrounding trees and pooled on the ground in mounds of ice cubes (think of the cylindrical ones you find at your local high school sports concession stand). Comically, some of our unluckier group members occasionally were graced with an ice cube falling down their back or knocking them in the head. The ridge walk along Crawford Mountain soon turned into a steep descent into Dry Spring Gap where the group took a long break at the forest service road crossing to snack, converse, and rest their legs before the ascent up to Elliott Knob.
During the ascent, the group came across its first water source, Buffalo Spring, since the initial stream crossings. The first members to reach the trail junction soon found out that spring was quite a haul down from the trail and were quick to warn the later arriving hikers. With our water replenished, our group leisurely pushed the final two miles of the ascent. Along the way we were greeted with views of our destination for the night, Elliott Knob, easily distinguishable by the two stands of spruce and fire tower at the summit. Upon joining the forest service road, the group split between those collecting water from the final source for the night and those heading straight to the campsite. For that water source, there was a small pond with a spring feeding it and a small stream running out of it. We found the source of the spring in an old stone box, with a big frog hanging out inside!
Reaching camp, it was evident that there was plenty of space for nine hikers to camp at the summit despite the sites below the spruce stands being covered in snow. The group settled on camping in the southeast facing meadow surrounding the fire ring and quickly set up their tents before exploring the views from the fire tower and collecting firewood. Jo and Karine made quick work of starting a fire despite only wet wood being available as the rest of us began cooking our dinners. As night fell, the group stayed warm and comfy surrounding the fire while sharing good conversation, spirits, and desserts. By 8:30, most of the group had retreated to their shelters for a long night of well-earned sleep.
With the coming of the 6:45 am wake up call, we arose to an accumulating layer of snow on our shelters. In an effort to stay dry, most of us chose to eat breakfast and pack up within our shelters, seeking refuge for from the snowfall. We broke camp around 7:55 and began hiking south down the North Mountain Trail, enjoying the winter wonderland views. Within an hour we arrived at our only water resupply point for the day, Chestnut Flats Spring. Much like Buffalo Spring, the water source required a short hike down a spur trail to reach it. Furthermore, although the spring was flowing well, the shallow grade of the brook emerging from it made collecting water a little difficult as there were no deep pools or areas where water poured over a rock ledge. After collecting water, the group set off to complete their remaining 12 miles for the day. Between the accumulating snow covering the ground and the evident scarcity of foot travel on this section, we encountered areas where was no obvious trail leaving us to meander as we walked the ridge. Not too long after, the route intersected a paralleling forest service road. Most of us chose to walk the forest service road with the knowledge that it would intersect the trail again at Ramsey’s Gap Road, staying just below the ridgeline for most of the stretch. Bryan chose to break back into the woods in hopes of picking the trail back up along the top of the ridgeline. Reconvening at Ramsey’s Gap Road, Bryan informed the group that within a mile of leaving the paralleling forest service road, the trail opened up into a clear path again, providing an easy and obvious route. With four miles remaining for the day, the group took a reprieve at the gap enjoying the last of our snacks before the final haul to our vehicles.
Starting this last stretch, the trail pieced together a number of forest service roads where we were subjected to a number of literal forks in the road where we had to confirm the correct route via Gaia. With about two miles left for the day, Erik crested over a hill to find a flock of 20+ turkeys using the trail to hike in the opposite direction. Easily spooked, the turkeys dispersed throughout the hillside just west of the trail. Approaching the final mile of trail for the day, the forest service road ended abruptly with no obvious trail emerging forward towards our direction of travel. It seems as though the reference maps that Erik had used to create the route may be a little outdated haha. Despite the setback, we took it as an opportunity to route-find using Gaia, which proved to be invaluable on this outing.
Arriving at the trailhead around 1:30 pm, the group quickly piled into the cars and enjoyed the warmth of the vehicles as the snow had recently transitioned to a rainy mix. We shuttled our way back to the Chimney Hollow trailhead to retrieve our remaining cars, then gathered at Shenandoah Pizza in Staunton where we stuffed our faces with delicious pizza. After saying goodbyes, we all split our separate ways driving back home while fighting off the impending food comas. All in all, this outing proved to be anything but the typical LM trip between the weather and the varying trail conditions, however, the group proved to be resilient and remained in great spirits throughout the trip. We’d caution against relying on this route as an easy LM, but you can always count on DCUL’ers for being game.
EV & CT