St. Mary's Wilderness, VA "Training Exercise"


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When we finished this trip I swore that I wouldn't publish a log of this hike because I was so upset about the way that it turned out. However, after thinking about it, I decided on doing so as a service to alert other hikers of the "opportunities" that we encountered as a group on this hike.

This was a 17.2 mile loop through the St. Mary's Wilderness in VA along the Western slope of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We all met at the Tye River Campground along VA56 the Friday afternoon before the hike. This is a nice campground and makes a great basecamp for a number of activities in the Parkway area. Frank Maida was the first to arrive around noon. He picked a nice spot along a stream. I arrived around 2 PM. We went swimming, then got a good soaking rain for about half an hour. Then Jerry Robey got in around 6. He had to drive through the rain storm and had to wait in traffic for 1.5 hours due to an accident further up I81.

We had a pleasant evening, talked about this & that as well as the upcoming hike. We retired around 9pm and got up around 6ish on Saturday morning. We ate, packed up and were at the trailhead by about 8:15 that morning. It was sunny but we knew from the forecasts that we would be getting rain most of the weekend.

The way that this loop is laid out you have a level or slightly uphill hike the first 4 miles, then a very steep and then moderate up the next 6 miles, then a downhill the next 3 miles, then level to mostly down the last 4 miles to make a total of 17.2 miles. The blazes were once blue or orange but do not appear to have been refreshed lately. One assumes this is due to the Forest Service wanting to maintain a minimal amount of human influence in a wilderness area.

The scenery was very pretty as we first traveled along the St. Mary's River. You can take a side trail to look at some waterfalls at mile 1.4. We elected not to as we wanted to make the miles. The trail then climbed along side of some neat small falls and pools, then crossed the river and started a gradual up among some old mine ruins. We then had some ups and downs, then intersected the Mine Bank Trail, where we would be returning from at mile 3.6. The trail then started getting narrower as it is not used much past this point except by backpackers. We passed some more mine ruins at mile about mile 4.5, then took a lunch break at around mile 5.0 It started drizzling slightly and thundering around this time. Then we started a very steep ascent for about the next 1.2 miles. While we were doing this tough up an electrical storm was developing overhead. We would get light periods of rain, then hear cracks of thunder as well as see lightning flashes. I was also hearing electrical pops which reminded me of the special effects produced by an electric guitar. These conditions motivated us to get up and over this mountain as quickly as possible.

Here's where we started having "opportunities" finding the trail. We passed a bulletin board at mile 6.15, then Green Pond, then a trail that goes around Green Pond. Then we came to an unmarked trail junction. We weren't sure whether to turn right here or not because the guide book was not clear on the location of this trail. There were no signs or blazes here also. So we took and chance (which ended up being a correct decision) and took this unmarked trail for about a third of a mile and came to FDR162. We turned right on it and started a series of long ups, short downs and some level walking for about the next 3.5 miles. During this time we were again experiencing periods of rain, thunder, fog and even occasional sunshine. We passed 3 vehicles along this stretch. One of the vehicles contained 2 young men looking for a place to "spin doughnuts" with their recently acquired SUV.

Next came the second "opportunity". And this was a crutial one. While walking this forest service road you walk along it for so long that you aren't concentrating on the Bald Mountain Trail, which you are supposed to turn right onto. This turnoff is about a quarter mile past a forest service road intersection that goes to Bald Mountain and occurs just as the forest service road that you are on makes a fairly sharp left turn while going downhill. There is no sign and no evidence of any orange blazes here so this turnoff is easy to miss. We did. This trail was where we were supposed to camp for the night. We didn't realize that. After another quarter mile or so we got to the Blue Ridge Parkway and pondered what to do next at a conveniently placed picnic table. We decided not to backtrack to the Bald Mountain Trail because it was all uphill. So we decided to walk the Blue Ridge Parkway for a mile, turn right at the next dirt road and pick up the Mine Bank Trail, which the Bald Mountain Trail ended at.

The walk along the BRP was very pleasant. We reached the dirt road, turned right, followed it to the end and the Mine Bank/Bald Mountain Trails intersection. Crisis averted. But another one awaited us just ahead.

While descending on the Mind Bank Trail we could not decide as a group where to camp. The only somewhat decent spot was a rocky somewhat open area after the second stream crossing. This is probably your best campsite if you don't camp along the Bald Mountain Trail.

The trail then continues to descend and gets rockier and the creek gets more within a gorge. We could not decide as a group where to camp and kept looking for the area described in the guidebook to camp in. But the terrain only got worse and we eventually pulled away from the creek and intersected with the St. Marys River Trail again.

Now we were really tired and cranky. What do we do now? Do we camp right here at the trail intersection, which was wide enough but rocky and had no water? Do we go back up the Mine Bank Trail and one of the campsites that we passed? Do we keep going and hope for another campsite? We weren't sure. We thought that a level area around an old mine was up ahead. However, it was past where we rejoined the St. Mary's River Trail. Now, all the camp sites that we were coming across were occupied by people that had hiked in from our original trailhead and set up camp. It was also starting to rain harder. It was also after 6pm. Due to the wet rocks and my being exhausted I took a bad spill and almost fell off of the trail and into the St. Marys River. Thankfully, Frank M and Jerry R pulled me up as I was clinging to a rock on the edge of the trail.

At this point we were only about 1.5 miles from the trailhead and decided to just hike back to our cars and call it a day. We did, having got back to our cars a little after 7pm. So we ended up hiking this 17.2 mile loop and about a 2,000 foot net elevation change in about 10.5 hours with full packs on as a day hike. A long day hike.

Even with these opportunities this was a good hike. The weather was a detrimental factor. The bad decisions that we made as a group were a detrimental factor. And the guidebook descriptions were a detrimental factor that kept this from being a great hike. However, I do think that we learned from it. I think that we experienced another example of the beauty of nature. And I think that by writing about it, hopefully others can learn from our mistakes and make this a truly great hike.

P.S- I will try to get back to this area soon and set up some rock cairns at the 2 intersections that we had problems with so other hikers will be able to make this a great hike.

Mike C

Please note that the Tye River Campground was sold within a few years of our staying there and is now private property. And I came back to this area, hiked the Bald Mountain Trail and did see where we were supposed to camp. I did place a rock cairn at the FDR162/Bald MTN Trail intersection. However, I tried driving to the unmarked intersection where I wanted to put up a rock cairn. But my Subaru Forester's oil pan kept scraping the rocks on this road. Concerned that I would tear off the oil pan at some point, I abandoned my quest to place a rock cairn at the intersection where we had to guess which way to go. Also, this is one of the only trip logs where I did not write down the date that it occured. I believe that it occured in June, 2001. However, the image date stamps on the MS Word documents that I have had a September, 2004 date. So while I don't remember exactly when this trip happened, I know that it was in the early 2000's. Senility sucks.


Jerry and Frank at the trailhead
  Jerry and Frank at the trailhead.
  By Mike Calabrese
View of St. Mary's River
  View of St. Mary's River.
  By Mike Calabrese

Jerry starts an up
  Jerry starts an up.
  By Mike Calabrese
Lunch break at the 5 mile mark
  Lunch break at the 5 mile mark.
  By Mike Calabrese
Old mine ruins at 4 mile mark
  Old mine ruins at 4 mile mark.
  By Mike Calabrese
Moss covered rock
  Moss covered rock.
  By Mike Calabrese
Scenic view along FDR162
  Scenic view along FDR162.
  By Mike Calabrese
Strange mold on Mine Bank Trail
  Strange mold on Mine Bank Trail.
  By Mike Calabrese


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