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Highroad Guide to the Virginia Mountains

By Deane and Garvey Winegar

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Sherpa Guides > Virginia Mountains > Valley and Ridge Province I > The Cascades Area

The Cascades Area

[Fig. 20(8)] Hikers who make the 2-mile journey up to the Cascades, a much-photographed, 66-foot waterfall on Little Stony Creek, find that getting there is half the fun. Little Stony—a native trout stream—tumbles down a dramatic, narrow gorge from the same plateau that holds one of only two natural lakes in Virginia, Mountain Lake. After the initial precipitous drop over steep cliffs into a deep pool, the stream winds and gurgles around boulders, creates more pools, and flows out into a wide valley northeast of Pembroke on its way to the New River.

Cool air sifts down the gorge from the high plateau, keeping temperatures down even in midsummer. The frozen falls are equally beautiful in winter. In the grassy valley of Little Stony Creek sits a beautiful picnic area with 15 tables and grills. Shading the area are apple and pear trees, native buckeyes, box elders, and walnut trees. Stream banks grow lush in late summer with the gold-orange blossoms of spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).

In the parking lot, look for summer colonies of dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis). The small, four-petaled blooms of pinkish purple grow on spires up to 4 feet tall. To fish for the native brook trout in Little Stony, use single barbed hooks and artificial lures only. Also needed are a fishing license, a trout stamp, and a national forest stamp.

Mountain Lake Wilderness

[Fig. 20(2)] This 11,113-acre wilderness area, which lies in three counties and two states, is the largest roadless area on the Blacksburg Ranger District of the Jefferson National Forest. Roadless, however, does not mean inaccessible. Unlike some wilderness areas, this one has ample hiking opportunities, including a stretch of the Appalachian Trail (AT) which crosses the area, and a loop hike through an old- growth forest. Motorized travel and bicycles on the wilderness area are prohibited. Access is limited to foot and horseback.

No question that Mountain Lake Wilderness is remote. It's located north of Blacksburg on the West Virginia border. The southwestern side is on a high plateau, which makes for easy walking, atop Salt Pond Mountain and Big Mountain in eastern Giles County. On the southeastern side, the terrain drops steeply down Salt Pond Mountain. The northeast border of the wilderness catches the northwest corner of Craig County and a piece of Potts Mountain. The northern section spills over into Monroe County, West Virginia. This area of splendid natural diversity is just a half hour's drive north of the college town of Blacksburg. Visitors who like their wilderness mixed with comfort and good food can stay at a retreat on Mountain Lake, for which both the wilderness and resort are named.

Incredible though it may seem, this deep, cold lake sitting on a mountain plateau is the only natural lake in Virginia's mountains and one of only two lakes in the state that aren't man-made. (Lake Drummond, in the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia, is the other.) Most of the world's natural lakes were formed by the scouring action of glaciers. However, in the last Ice Age, glaciers did not reach as far south as Virginia. Instead, a rock slide, perhaps several thousand years ago, dammed a narrow valley to form Mountain Lake. Debris gradually plugged holes in the slide as cold mountain springs filled the lake to the current depth of 100 feet. Water temperatures rarely exceed 72 degrees. Records show fluctuations in the depth over the past 200 years that could be caused by drought or by underground leaks through the talus forming the dam. Resort guests tell of beautiful stocked trout caught from the lake's waters.

Mountain Lake is not part of the Jefferson National Forest or Mountain Lake Wilderness, but the resort conducts hikes and bike rides onto the surrounding national forest. If the cabins and lake look familiar, it's because the movie Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze, was filmed at Mountain Lake Resort. The wilderness lies squarely on the Eastern Continental Divide. Rain or snow falling on the western edge seeks out streams that carry runoff to the New River, then the Ohio River, then the Mississippi River, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Precipitation falling on the eastern slope rushes away in the opposite direction to join water in the James River headed for the Chesapeake Bay.

Because of its position on mountaintops, Mountain Lake Wilderness provides an unpolluted beginning for several streams, including White Rock Branch of Stony Creek, Little Stony Creek, and several branches of Johns Creek and Potts Creek. Elevations at Mountain Lake Wilderness range from 2,200 to 4,100 feet. The variation encourages diverse flora and fauna.

For example, a wetland called Manns Bog produces sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is used by gardeners for packing and planting, and was once sought by physicians who used it to dress wounds. A tiny summer flower with five white petals, on a stem rising above a rosette of reddish, sticky basal leaves is also found here. It's the round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)—a carnivorous plant that supplements its diet with an occasional insect. Sundew thrive in nutrient-poor soils and acidic bogs.

Patches of bluets (Houstonia caerulea) grow at overlooks, in the open woods, and on streamsides. Other flora to look for along the trails and streams include wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), galax (Galax aphylla), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), and fire pink (Silene virginica). Stands of virgin red spruce, fir, and hemlock—all high-country trees—coexist with moss-covered boulders and carpets of fern in a moist hollow where War Spur Branch drops off the plateau and heads down to Johns Creek. The hemlocks in particular are massive in comparison to other trees in the surrounding oak-hickory climax forest. This stand is an easy walk along the War Spur and Chestnut trails.

In this and other stands of old-growth forest, many varieties of ferns grow. A pocket guide will help visitors identify which ferns they've found. Here at Mountain Lake Wilderness, slanting rays of sunlight sift through the thick canopy and catch the lacy fronds of cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), and hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula).

Perhaps because they were in so remote a location, the ancient trees somehow missed the scorched-earth logging practices of the early 1900s. To sit for awhile on a fallen log and soak up the immense peace among some of the largest and oldest trees in the East is well worth the walk along a 2.5-mile loop trail that begins and ends in the wilderness parking lot. Come in spring or early summer to catch the understory of rhododendron, mountain laurel, azalea, and blueberry in bloom. Or come to experience the near silence of an old-growth forest during a winter snowfall. During such a snowfall, a large, white rabbit with big feet may hop across the path. Snowshoe hares, creatures of Canadian provinces and Alaska, survive in high pockets of the Appalachians as far south as North Carolina. Snows that are only a couple of inches deep in the valley below can accumulate quickly on the plateau.

White Rocks is a remote campground on the northwest border of the wilderness in Giles County, near the West Virginia line. A 1.5-mile, easy, nature trail loop, called Virginia's Walk, begins and ends in the campground, offering an excellent place to see area wildlife, including white-tailed deer, gray fox, raccoon, opossum, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, and woodcock. Black bear and bobcat, though rarely seen, also live here.

White Rocks Campground

[Fig. 20(3)] At the junction of US 460 and US 460 bypass west of Blacksburg, go 16 miles west and turn right on VA 635. Continue for 17 miles past Goldbond. Turn right on VA 613 (gravel). Go .8 mile to entrance on left and drive 1 mile to campground.

Peters Mountain Wilderness

[Fig. 20(7)] This small wilderness, on the West Virginia border 19 miles west of Blacksburg, requires a bit of effort to explore. The 3,326 acres are on the southeast slope of steep-sided Peters Mountain, with elevations ranging from 3,000 feet on Stony Creek to 3,956 acres on the crest. No roads enter the wilderness, and most trails go straight up the hollows.

Southern Appalachian hardwoods cover the slopes, while hemlocks and a heath understory grow in protected ravines. An old-growth hemlock and red spruce forest remains on the area near the ridge. Stony Creek, which skirts the bottom edge of the wilderness (and is easily accessible along VA 635), is a stocked trout stream. Here, the big tooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), which grows in small patches along VA 635 in the Stony Creek drainage, is at the southern extremity of its range in Northeast America. The leaves range in size from 2 to 3.5 inches, they are oval to nearly round, and they have rounded teeth that are coarser than those of the quaking aspen.

Also scattered throughout the drainage are Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), a southern species. This magnolia has huge, fragrant white flowers in May. It's also called "earleaf magnolia," for the earlobe-shaped base of its waxy leaves.

The Interior Picnic Area, shaded by white pines, is located at the grassy edge of rhododendron-lined Stony Creek near the Appalachian Trail.

Peters Mountain Wilderness Trails

Most trails here follow streambeds up the steep hollows. The Appalachian Trail (AT) travels the wilderness boundary along the ridgeline of Peters Mountain, beginning at the very steep southern end of Peters Mountain, traveling 11 miles north, then descending Pine Swamp Branch to Stony Creek.

AT Trail to Rice Fields. [Fig. 20(23)] The Rice Fields are extensive open pastures with rock outcroppings near the southern end of Peters Mountain. About a third of the hike consists of the very steep climb up the rocky southern end of Peters Mountain. The white-blazed AT then follows the saddles and peaks northeast along the ridge, with many expansive views into West Virginia to reward the hiker along the way.

With a map from the Ranger District Office, hikers can choose other trails, such as a four-wheel-drive path, to descend Peters Mountain for a loop hike. Hikers should bring extra clothing in case of sudden weather changes.

Cherokee Flats Trail. [Fig. 20(5)] Located just past the Interior Picnic Area on the banks of Stony Creek, Cherokee Flats is a handicapped- and stroller-accessible fishing trail. It provides access to fishing holes with stocked trout. The Cherokee Flats Trail gradually becomes more challenging as it goes along the creek.

Loop Trail. [Fig. 20(1)] This easy-to-moderate, 8-mile trail follows several small streams and offers an excellent opportunity to discover the variety of vegetation that can exist at varying elevations.

Johns Creek Mountain Trail. [Fig. 20(21)] Located on Johns Creek Mountain, due north of Blacksburg, this trail offers a fine chance to see wildlife and stand on rock outcroppings, enjoying sweeping views of valleys below. From the western trailhead, the hike begins with a vigorous, .5-mile climb on the AT to the summit, and the rest of the hike is basically downhill. From the high point, the Johns Creek Mountain Trail extends out the ridgeline, crossing saddles and peaks, gradually descending for 3.5 miles to the parking area on VA 658. Combining this hike with the AT makes part of a circuit that will lead back to the highway within 3 or 4 miles of the parking area. Shelters are located along the AT. Maps of the ranger district are available in Blacksburg.

Hiking the Cascades Area

Mayfly (Order Ephemeroptera) The translation of the mayfly’s Latin name is “living a day.”If you enjoy wildflowers, a guidebook will be worth its weight in your backpack. Many varieties of wildflowers bloom at the falls and at various elevations on both the lower and upper trail here. Among them are cut-leaved toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), chickweed (Stellaria media), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia durior), ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), Canada lily—also called meadow lily and wild yellow lily—(Lilium canadense), and spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata). Look for violets in five different colors.

Jeffersonian twin-leaf (Jeffersonia dyphylla) was named for Thomas Jefferson by his friend, William Bartram. The limestone-loving plant looks a bit like bloodroot and mayapple. It's one of only two species of twin-leaf known in the world. Walking fern (Camptosorus rhizophyllus), which grows on rocky ledges, has blades with a long, pointed tip that reach to the ground and form new plants.

Cascades National Recreation Trail. [Fig. 20(9)] The easy, 2-mile hike up Little Stony Creek to the Cascades is well worth the effort. The spirited mountain creek—
a native trout stream—is shaded by dark hemlocks and rhododendron thickets that lean over the water. The 66-foot falls have carved a pool in the rocks below.

The Appalachian Trail (AT). [Fig. 20] The AT has a strong presence in the Cascades Area. After crossing the New River west of Pearisburg, the AT ascends Peters Mountain going from 1,700 feet to 3,400 feet, and it follows the peaks and valleys along the crest—which is also the Virginia/West Virginia line—for about 11 miles. It then descends on the east flank and works its way up, down, and across the mountains toward the southeast.

Some stretches of the AT offer challenging climbs up steep slopes, while on other portions, hikers barely break a sweat as they follow the white-blazed trail along a ridge or plateau. These mountains are full of sandstone outcroppings with outstanding vistas, and the AT or a spur will take you to many of them. Three popular overlooks are the Rice Fields, requiring a steep climb to 3,400 feet from the southern end of Peters Mountain and a 5-mile hike; Wind Rock, an easy .75-mile loop at 4,100 feet on Potts Mountain; and Kelly Knob, a moderate, 4-mile round trip that ascends to 3,800 feet on Johns Creek Mountain.

Mountain Lake Wilderness Trails. [Fig. 20(2)] With 25 miles of hiking trails penetrating its forests, Mountain Lake Wilderness receives its share of human visitation. Some trails are well marked and well used, while others are difficult to follow. Visitors should carry their own water, and assume that any stream or lake, no matter how remote or pristine looking, could harbor deadly bacteria or other contaminants. Hikers should be on the lookout for copperheads and rattlesnakes, both of which are very much at home in the mountains, and should prepare for rapidly changing weather at higher elevations by taking outer shells of wind-breaking clothing such as nylon or Gore-Tex.

War Spur and Chestnut trails. [Fig. 20(4,10)] Combine these two trails for an easy, 2.5-mile loop through the awesome stand of virgin hemlock, red spruce, and balsam fir, and to War Spur Overlook for a beautiful view of the northwest slope of Johns Creek Mountain and the valley below. The trail is not blazed, but is easy to follow and may be used heavily during peak season. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium augustifolium ), a tiny member of the iris family, blooms in early summer at the overlook.

Covered Bridges

Sinking Creek, in southeastern Giles County, has two covered bridges in close proximity. The most photographed is the small (55-foot), red Link's Farm Bridge [Fig. 20(13)], which is on the road to Mountain Lake. The other, just south of Link's Farm Bridge, is a 70-foot span named Sinking Creek Covered Bridge. Both were built about 1916 with modified Howe trusses.

Sinking Creek Covered Bridge: [Fig. 20(14)] from US 460 west of Blacksburg, go about 5 miles west and turn right on VA 42 at Newport. Go about 1 mile and turn left on VA 601. Bridge is on right.

Northern Extension of Brushy Mountain, Flat Top Mountain, Sugar Run Mountain

Dismal Creek and Dismal Falls. [Fig. 18(3)] A creek named "Dismal" is the focus of a recreation area in the national forest west of the New River in southwestern Giles County. Dismal Creek drains a basin in the southeastern slope of Flat Top Mountain, the south slope of Sugar Run Mountain, and the northwestern slope of Brushy Mountain. Before leaving Giles County, the creek tumbles over Dismal Falls, a 10-foot drop over several levels of sandstone. The erosion-resistant rock is part of a formation over 400 million years old. The creek then heads for Bland County, adding its waters to cold Kimberling Creek, fresh out of Kimberling Creek Wilderness [Fig. 18(5)] to the west. The creeks are part of the Walker Creek and New River watershed.

By itself, the waterfall would draw visitors from the heat of pavement and treeless avenues. The falls are easily accessible by car, and the cool mountain air that flows down the gorge is a welcome balm to folks from nearby Bland and Pearisburg, and to travelers on Interstate 77 with an afternoon to spare. Dismal Creek, though, has more than a pretty waterfall. There are stocked trout in the creek, a grassy camping area and wildlife pond, a campground for horseback riders, and excellent hiking opportunities, including a connection with the Appalachian Trail.

A young climax forest of hardwoods interspersed with pines covers the slopes. Three types of maples—striped, red, and sugar maples—are also found on Brushy Mountain. Growing in the Dismal Creek drainage between the falls and White Pines Horse Camp is a startling find for these parts, the Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). More a tree of coastal freshwater swamps and bogs, the white-cedar has small, blueish green scales for leaves. Crush them to sniff the fragrance. Organ pipes were once made from the tree's resonant wood. Red cedar also grows throughout. The elevation at the falls is 2,300 feet, ascending to 4,000 feet on the ridges.

Hiking at Dismal Creek. The well-maintained Appalachian Trail (AT), blazed with a white bar, enters Giles County near Dismal Falls. A short side trail leads north to the falls. The AT then follows the stream up the hollow, intersects with White Pine Horse Camp, and passes across the creek from Walnut Flats Campground. The AT turns north to follow the crest of Sugar Run Mountain, catches the northeast edge of Flat Top, and then heads 10 miles northeast along the top of Pearis Mountain for a meeting with the New River west of Pearisburg. The hike is mostly easy, except for the climb up Sugar Run Mountain. Scenic overlooks above the New River Valley await the hiker on the east end of Pearis Mountain.

The Ribble Trail begins farther up the road past Dismal Falls, and climbs up the hollow between Sugar Run and Flat Top mountains. This 2-mile, blue-blazed trail meets the AT at both ends, offering a 10-mile loop hike for a day's outing. Suggestion: Take the easier AT to climb the mountain and save the steeper Ribble Trail for the descent.

A guidebook is helpful for identifying the wide variety of mushrooms in the area in wet seasons. They should not be eaten, though, by anyone who is not an expert at identifying mushrooms. Even small amounts of poisonous mushrooms can be fatal, and many mushrooms are easily confused with others.

Ribble Trail. Follow above directions to Dismal Falls but continue 4 miles on VA 201. Lower trailhead is at red gate where road makes right turn. Upper trailhead is farther up 201 at turnoff to Honey Springs Cabin.

Camping at Dismal Creek. Walnut Flats Campground [Fig. 18(1)] is located in a grassy area sparsely shaded by a few walnut and pine trees. Because of the lack of facilities, this primitive campground gets only light use, except during hunting season. Anyone who sits quietly near the pond here at dusk or at dawn can watch the pond life and listen to the variety of frogs.

White Pine Horse Camp [Fig. 18(2)] is small and primitive, and shaded by white pines. Orange-blazed trails for horseback riding lead out of the campground.

Havens Wildlife Management Area. [Fig. 20(11)] Lightly used and steeply forested with oaks, hickories, and pines, Havens Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is just the place for those looking for a solitary outing for hiking, hunting, wildlife viewing, or just getting away from it all. The WMA is on Fort Lewis Mountain, within earshot of trucks rumbling along I-81 west of Roanoke. There are populations of deer, turkey, squirrel, and grouse on the area—even black bear—but steep and somewhat inaccessible terrain discourages all but the hardiest hunter or the most dedicated wildflower enthusiast. Several trails and gated roads that meander through the area and along the crest of Fort Lewis Mountain offer foot access, however.

Like all 29 wildlife management areas in Virginia, Havens was purchased with and is maintained through the sale of state hunting and fishing licenses. And like all wildlife management areas, the 7,190-acre Havens area is open to the public for visits at no charge. Streams on Havens are intermittent rather than permanent, so fishing is out, though several water holes for wildlife have been built. Elevations range from 1,500 feet to 3,200 feet. The area was logged prior to 1930 when the game department bought the property, and it has been slow to recover because of poor, thin soil.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), which manages the WMA, is looking for a volunteer group interested in developing a hiking trail into the area. The trail would possibly start at the Angeline parking area and climb to connect with the Man and Horse Trail (constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps) and the administrative access road along the ridge of Fort Lewis Mountain. Such a trail would lead through the healthy stand of Carolina hemlocks on the northwest slope. These handsome hemlocks, which grow well in rocky locations, have not been cut for decades and have grown quite tall.

Seeded power line rights-of-way and 5 acres of grassy openings are helping to improve conditions for some wildlife. The openings are planted in clover and orchard grass, specifically to attract wild turkey. The project is a joint venture of the VDGIF, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Both deer and turkey are using the openings. Havens is less than 45 minutes from the urban bustle of Roanoke and Salem, thus making it close and attractive to individuals and groups who like to view wildlife and wildflowers, or park the car to investigate on foot unspoiled nature in a mountain setting.

Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) The unique bark of the birch is thin and shreddy. This bark is flammable even when wet, so it is useful for campsites.Dixie Caverns

[Fig. 20(12)] In limestone rock at the southeastern corner of Fort Lewis Mountain is the southernmost commercial cavern in Virginia. As in many of the state's caves, saltpeter was once mined from Dixie Caverns to make gunpowder. Some also think the Shawnee Indians once obtained clay from the mines.

Most caves lead immediately down in the earth. Dixie Caverns, however, which is located on a fault line called the Salem Fault, leads up to the Cathedral Room—over 200 feet square and more than 160 feet high. Then the tour leads down to formations called Turkey Wing, Magic Mirror, Leaning Tower, Frozen Waterfall, and a 57-ton, bell-shaped formation called Wedding Bell.

The variety of formations, or speleothems, include draperies, rimstone, and flowstone, including a large and impressive flowstone speleothem called Golden Cascade. A colony of bats that inhabits the cave seems undisturbed by human intrusion, according to cave management. The guided tour takes about 45 minutes.

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