Saturday, December 8, 2012

Groahs Ridge - An Unnecessary Bushwhack

Great spot on Groahs Ridge with Cellar Mountain in the distance.
Sometimes while on a hike you discover another place you want to explore in the future. That was what happened when I hiked up Big Spy Mountain in the Saint Mary’s Wilderness. While on that impressive peak, my eyes kept wandering across Spy Run to the peak on the other side, a mountain with its own fair share of outcrops and talus that promised views. I determined this to be Groahs Ridge, and decided it looked like it was worth a visit sometime.

Groahs Ridge as seen from Big Spy Mountain.
Now, eight months later, that was to be my adventure for the day. After studying topo maps and imagery on Google Earth, it appeared that Groahs Ridge was completely trail-less. That left things wide open as to what route to take, but the most interesting looking way was a ridge that dropped steeply off the north side before narrowing and leveling off, then curving northeast before plunging sharply the last few hundred feet to the valley floor. 

A Forest Service road led right to the snout of this ridge before reaching a gate, beyond which the road continued to points unknown. I started right up the end of the ridge, which was very steep, just short of having to grab trees to pull myself up - and only barely so at that. It gained about 400’ in elevation over a horizontal distance of only about 600’-700’.  It was also heavily covered with mountain laurel, though not discouragingly so. But I like steep climbs, and it was fun, in a sick sort  of way. And I knew the grade would ease off quickly when the ridge leveled off.

As expected, it did just that and descended gently into a slight gap. At this point, an obvious path came in from the right and joined the ridgeline. It was pretty obvious, but didn’t look like any sort of a maintained trail. Rather, I assumed it was a well used hunters path. As the ridge began to rise somewhat steeply once again, the path stayed right on it, leading right where I wanted to go. It was vague in spots and had a few trees across it, but it always became obvious again within a few yards until it seemingly fizzled out just below the summit.

Rocky slopes above Spy Run.
I did leave the path in several spots to wander over to the east edge of the ridge to check out the obvious outcrops and clifftops that began to appear. There were several good views, and one spot in particular was impressive enough to linger at for a while. This was a small, airy perch atop a pile of stacked blocks of rock right on the edge of a modest cliff, and it had a panorama of about half the horizon, most of the view being easterly into the rocky heart of the Saint Mary’s Wilderness. There were numerous talus slopes in sight and the narrow gorge of Spy Run was directly below me. Directly across this gorge was impressive Big Spy Mountain and off in the distance was a rather pointy peak that I always thought was Knob of Rocks when seeing it from the interstate. Now I know it to be Mine Bank Mountain, which is higher and in front of what I thought it was. The bulk of Cellar Mountain took up most of the horizon to the northeast and prevented views beyond it. After enjoying this find sufficiently, I tagged the summit and also found a limited view west of magnificent Adams Peak, the fog-filled Great Valley, and the distant Allegheny ridges.

Big Spy Mountain.
On the way back down, I decided I was going to follow the path all the way to see where it came out. When I got to the spot where I first hit it, I veered left off the ridgeline with it. Almost immediately it became obvious that this was indeed a constructed trail, though apparently no longer maintained. It was covered with untrampled moss and had a couple trees across it, and there were no old blazes to be seen. But the trail was very obviously dug into the sidehill long ago and descended at a steady and easy grade. As it neared the snout of the ridge, it curved around it, still descending, and soon came out exactly at my vehicle. Doh! Boy, did I feel stupid! Though the last 15’ were vague, I had bushwhacked up the ridge starting literally two steps away from a good trail. I looked around pretty good but saw no signs, cairns, blazes, or anything else to indicate the existence of the trail - but it’s there nevertheless, and worth another visit sometime.

Adams Peak and a fog-filled Great Valley beyond.
Back on the road, I decided I had time for another hike to bag a couple more peaks I’d been interested in for some time. I got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed south a few miles to a gated road that was to be my approach to McClung Peak and Whites Peak. 
These are two sub-3000’ peaks along the western front of the Blue Ridge and are similarly located to such other nearby peaks as Adams, McClung, Pinnacle, and Peak 2310, which I have found to be very rewarding or even exceptional. Though these two didn’t have any obvious attractions, I had at least some hope they would be worthwhile. Alas, it was not to be - though they were surprisingly difficult. The gated road took me down to Chestnut Sag, then I bushwhacked up to the connecting ridge between my two peaks. It was very rocky, with lots of softball to basketball sized rocks among the larger ones. Many of these were loose and covered by deep leaves. You couldn't tell what you were about to step on, or if it would move. It made for tedious walking. And the last few hundred vertical feet were tree-grabbing steep. After touching the top, I milled around looking for a view, but found nothing. Nor could I see, through the trees, anything promising on Whites Peak excepting some outcrops that were on the wrong side of the mountain and much lower than I was interested in going.

I headed that way anyway and found that Whites was not quite as steep as McClure, but was perhaps even rockier, as well as brushier. I found the benchmark on the summit, but no views even after wandering out the opposite ridge about a quarter mile.

But it had been a good day in the hills anyway with three new peaks. And Groahs Ridge would have been worth the effort of all three by itself.

The Route of the Groahs Ridge hike. To see a larger map click here.

Route of the McClure and Whites Peaks hike. To see a larger map click here.

Hike Stats:
Groahs Ridge - 3.3miles,1592' elevation gain
McClure and Whites Peaks - 5.2miles, 1790' cumulative elevation gain

More pictures from this hike

Groahs Ridge gpx file and maps
McClure and Whites Peaks gpx file and maps

Trailhead coordinates:

Groahs Ridge: 37.9252,-79.1507
Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone: 

McClure and Whites Peaks: 37.75875,-79.29177
Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone:

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