Saturday, April 13, 2013

Chestnut Ridge - Lonely Mountain Meadows

It’s hard to believe that such a nice spot on the Appalachian Trail as Chestnut Ridge is so lonely - not that I mind though. I kind of like it that way. I’ve been up there well over 60 times now, yes 60, but outside the peak of thru-hiker traffic I’ve rarely seen more than one or two people up there, and often-times no one else at all.

Besides comparatively little publicity, part of the reason for this lack of people is undoubtedly that it is relatively remote. The trailheads from the north (actually east) are on the rim of Burkes Garden, which isn’t exactly convenient from most of the main roads in the region. And one of the roads in to the Poor Valley trailhead on the south side has a hint of a third world feel to it, thanks a narrow dirt road with hairpin turns on a steep mountainside, with no guard rails and little room to pass another vehicle. For a while, a section of it had even slid away a few years ago, and that only added to the feeling. Even now, I’m always glad to get that section behind me. But this is also my favorite place to start the hike from, as I did today.

The trail starts off steep, eases up, steepens again, then moderates for the first 2 ½ miles to the ridgeline. This is a woods walk and is the price of admission to the great hiking above. Right before that second steep section is also one of my pet peeves about Appalachian Trail reroutes. There was a spot here where the level trail then climbed uphill at a modest grade to gain maybe 10 feet in elevation over a distance of perhaps 35 yards, before dropping off 6 feet of that gain over about 20 yards. It was a minor bump by any standard and insignificant compared to the steep section immediately ahead. But a 100 yard long section of brand new trail was built to sidehill around this tiny bump to end up at the same spot, saving a mere 6 feet of climbing. In the big scheme of things, it probably didn’t cost much, but there was labor and money for this while other trails go unmaintained or abandoned. I follow the new trail on the way down, but never on the way up, not that it makes any difference to anyone but me.

Once the crest of Chestnut Ridge is gained, the trail immediately comes out into a small meadow, and two more miles of easy strolling follow. The views are limited here, but hint at what lies ahead. After briefly re-entering the woods, the trail comes out in the open again near a small pond. As the trail climbs, there are good views to the south and west near here, but the best is still ahead. The trail goes into the woods once again, then emerges into a long, beautiful meadow with magnificent views, and the trail traverses its entire length. The scenery is great all the way through this clearing, but my favorite spot is about 300 yards before it enters the woods again, atop a small rise I like to refer to as “The Grassy Knoll”. The panorama here is more or less a 270° arc not counting the remainder of the still rising ridgeline, which, of course limits the view in that direction. To the south is the long ridgeline of Walker Mountain, with Glade Mountain, the Iron Mountains, and the Mount Rogers High Country beyond. More to the southeast, Sand Mountain is visible, which lets me know where home is. Southwest and west are Brushy Mountain, other high peaks on Clinch Mountain, and the cliffbound crest of Morris Knob. Finally, to the north, and much closer, is the spruce-capped top of Garden Mountain, a.k.a. Balsam Beartown. After the high peaks on the Mount Rogers massif, this 4,710’ peak is the sixth highest ranked summit in the state. Getting to it can be difficult if you don’t know the best approaches, but also an adventure with a high elevation bog and some great views nearby.

Looking south towards Mount Rogers and Whitetop, looming over a thousand feet higher than anything else in Virginia.

Peaks on Clinch and Knob Mountains.
The AT shelter atop Chestnut Knob
The high elevation bowl of Burkes Garden.
The long upper meadow on Chestnut Ridge.

I usually hate to leave this spot for the top, but always go there anyway because it has its own rewards. After another ¾ mile in the woods, the trail pops out in the open again and quickly reaches the top of the 4,409’ former lookout site. Unfortunately, the tower is long gone, but the lookout’s cabin still remains and has been converted to an Appalachian Trail shelter. If it’s cold and windy, or raining, the four walls and roof are always welcome. There are some views south and southwest here, though not as expansive as those from the Grassy Knoll. But there is one view here that the knoll does not have, and that is into the tremendous bowl of Burkes Garden. This 4 mile by 8 mile cove is called “God’s Thumbprint” and from above, or on a map, looks like a huge caldera or crater, though in actuality, it is not. Completely surrounded by Garden Mountain, and lying anywhere from 600 - 1,600 feet below it, its surprisingly flat floor is one of the highest inhabited valleys in Virginia, all of it above 3,000 feet in elevation. Were it not for the one small break in Garden Mountain that allows Burkes Garden Creek to drain out, it would not be a valley at all, but a huge lake. It is a curious place, to be sure. On this visit, the view of the Garden was actually something of a surprise. In the 20+ years I’ve been coming here, the viewpoint has slowly grown up with small trees and severely limited the view. But since my last visit, the Forest Service or PATH club that maintains this section of the AT has reopened the vista considerably. While it still isn’t a wide-open view, it should be good for several more years, especially in the brown months. Despite my disapproval of some reroutes, I am always grateful when something like this gets done. Keeping the views from these mountain meadows open keeps them special - though it may not continue to keep them lonely forever.

Route to Chestnut Knob from Poor Valley. To view a larger map click here.

Hike Stats: 9 miles, 2,000' elevation gain

Pictures from this hike 

Pictures from other hikes to Chestnut Ridge:
October 2011
April 2011
August 2009
May 2009
August 2008
October 2007
July 2007


gpx files and topo maps 
Happy Trails article about Chestnut Ridge 
Blue Ridge Outdoors article mentioning Chestnut Ridge page for Chestnut Knob 

View Larger Map
Poor Valley trailhead coordinates:

Google map for trailhead

Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone

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