Monday, October 22, 2012

Hikes: Seven Sisters Trail (Double Blazes are Important!)

I have several fall loves.  Two of them directly conflict with each other - hiking and college football.  If I commit to a Saturday mountain hike in the fall, I can hang it up on seeing any of my teams.  A few weeks ago the home team played so well that I was inspired to propose going to the following week's away game in Blacksburg.
 Well I was also scheduled to go on a hike with the Dames.  I miss the Dames!  But alas, the stars seemed to align for us to head to Blacksburg.  Saturday was a gorgeous day, even if the game was a bit of a downer after the first quarter.  We're still attempting to figure out how to identify a Hokie.

They did have this stuffed turkey that they called Hokie Bird...

 The next day we hiked the Seven Sisters Trail.  This trail is a part of the Big Walker Mountain Group and is in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.  The trailhead was about a 10 minute drive from our hotel in Wytheville, VA.  We parked one car at Stoney Creek Campground and another at the trailhead.  It is possible to walk the three miles down the road but frankly I didn't want to push our time.  Now on to the hike.  It is a 4.8 mile hike of easy to moderate difficulty...if you follow directions.
See! The sign says 4.8 miles to the campground and tells us to follow the yellow blazes.
We started the hike with me pointing out the torn up garbage bags with food all around the picnic table and the nearby large pile of dung.  I took a guess that nothing other than a black bear could do that.  I took some comfort in the regular sound of shots from hunters.  Surely bears would lay low with all of that noise.  Surely.
I was excited about having my mom out with me that day, but I believe the bear comment led her to say that I'm on my own with new experiences now.
So off we went through a lovely grove of rhododendron.  After a series of switchbacks and some mid trail clothing shedding, the trail reached a fork.  One side appeared to be more trail, but it felt like the wrong direction and there was no blaze.  The other side was a bridle (horse) trail and there was a yellow blaze in that direction.  I didn't remember reading anything about a bridle trail portion but we followed it anyway.  Down we went.  Down, down, down for about 3/4 of a mile, until we began to smell horses.  We didn't see any blazes but that was expected since the blazes had been spaced out pretty sparsely before.
Beautiful but way off our beaten path.
My friend did a little recognizance work up several paths that could be trails but saw no yellow blazes.  So we all pulled out our communication devices.  I know some of you call them phones but I have had a loaner phone for the last 5 days.  After no GPS, music, email, social media etc, I will now call my should-be-delivered-today real phone a communication device!  My friend took a look at a topographical map of the area and determined that we were off the ridge.  I took a look at another map and determined the direction of the campground and that we were not heading towards it.  My mother took a look at her phone and got frustrated by Siri.  I turned on mapmyrun and watched it as we walked Up, Up, Up to the last yellow blaze we saw.  
Wait is that a Hokie Bird feather?
 We got back up on the ridge and went to the initial fork.  My friend went up the other trail and saw no blazes.  My mom and I were standing around and then my mom spotted a blaze up a path that we did not consider.  We did not look that way because it required a full 90 degree turn from the other blaze.  We also didn't consider it because there were two more obvious choices.  Surely the park service would place a double blaze somewhere to notify us to look around for the next blaze and it would not be directly in front of us.  They did.  It was covered by a coffee can.
I would turn around and go the other way if this was wet.  It was steep and covered by leaves.  It was also not the most challenging of the hills.
 So a mile and half off the beaten path, we end up back on the correct trail.  There is nothing to say about this part of the trail other than there are several pretty major but short climbs.  Sometimes I had to put my hands down to keep from falling and the leaves made it slippery.  The views were great and I'm glad that I remembered to stop at some points and look around.

Eventually we reached the summit.  It was close to checkout time at the hotel but the great part of being at the summit is cell phone service.  I called and they were happy to extend our checkout. 
We thought surely we can cover these 2 miles, find the car in the campground, get the other car, go back to the hotel, shower, and checkout in two hours. HA!
So down we went, in the right direction this time.  As a note, we had a couple more moments on the trail where we did not see a blaze for close to a mile.  That was pretty disconcerting but we just decided to trust our technology at those points and eventually we did pass the blazes.  The trail on the way down is a bit different.  That appears to be the drainage side of the mountain.  In several places we were just walking on crushed limestone covered in moss and leaves.  
Not a lot to get a grip on.
This was actually the scariest part of the hike for several reasons.  The trail was narrow.  There was a significant drop off on one side and the wall of the hill on the other side.  Mountain bikers call this single track.  If you meet someone, there's no way for you to pass each other without someone getting off the trail.  The problem is there was nowhere to go.  I was also afraid because the surface was not easy to grip, we were going down, and my mom had on sneakers.  Luckily we made it down.  We also saw our first people of the day during this section.  Once we got to the last .6 miles, I began to run.  I wanted to get to the campground and find the car.  

When the trail put me out in the campground, a kind camper directed me to the day parking.  It was another half mile around.  A smart hiker would have driven around the campground before parking so that she could figure out the relationship between the trail head and the day parking area.  My coworker suggested that I pull out my phone whenever I park and make the car a GPS waypoint.  I'm going to use that the next time.  I got the car, went back to the trail head, picked up my mom and my friend, and then we raced back to the hotel.  We just made it.  It was a good hike but we pushed it.  I am extremely proud of my mom and feel blessed to have friends and family that support this new hobby of mine.  Until next time y'all!

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