Laurel Fork Special Management Area, Virginia, May 28-29.
My original intention is to take advantage of the long weekend to scout some trails I haven't done before, including some possible bushwacking to avoid a few miles of road walking linking two trails. The plan changes somewhat when I purchase a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves a few days before the trip. I want to see how they will do when backpacking on some fairly easy grades (though not easy trails).
My hiking outfit for this adventure: Merrell Trail Gloves without socks, Mountain Hardwear El Kommando Kilt with Tim Marshall Dyneema sporran, and a DriFit short sleeve. I'm carrying 2.5 days of food in my MLD Prophet in case I feel like staying out two nights.
I'm not a morning person. I get a late start from home in Northern Virginia and arrive at the main parking area around 2:30. The weather is good - temperatures in the 70's, no rain, partly cloudy, a nice breeze, almost no bugs.
My planned itinerary is to hike the Buck Run Trail short distance, then follow a spur trail to its junction with Locust Springs. Descend a short distance along Locust Springs Trail, then follow another spur trail up to a junction with the Slabcamb Run Trail. From here, I could try the bushwack to reach the Bear Wallow Trail, but due to the late start I decide to follow Slabcamp Run to where it flows into Laurel Fork. A ford will be necessary at this point to reach the Laurel Fork trail on the other side.
With all the rain we've had this spring, I assume the fords of Laurel Fork will be more difficult than on my previous visits, when they were no more than mid-calf deep. I hope they would not be dangerously so.
I reach the mouth of Slabcamp around 6pm. In total I've only hiked about 6 miles due to traction issues. The Trail Gloves are great when walking on smooth trail and crossing streams, but have very little traction in mud and almost none on wet rocks and roots, which there are in abundance on the lower reaches of Slabcamp.
Laurel Fork is running deeper and stronger, as expected, but no more than knee deep. Rather than cross and camp on the other side (where there are several large group campsites further down), I decide to set up for the night at a small tentsite above the ford.
After setting up my Lunar Solo E and a bear hang, I prepare dinner: Hawk Vittles cashew curry, supplemented with a Tanka Wild stick, an Angell chocolate bar and some Corner Creek bourbon. The skies are overcast. Even if it were clear the views are not going to be great here at the bottom of a stream valley, under trees. I doze off to the sound of rushing water, and sleep very soundly, only waking once or twice during the night.
Arise later than usual - no group schedule to adhere to, so I sleep in. Breakfast and break camp by 9:30.
Today's route: ford Laurel Fork, follow the trail upstream a short distance to the Christian Run Trail junction. Take Christian Run Trail out of the valley to its junction with Middle Mountain Trail. Head south on the Middle Mountain Trail as far as views of the The Stamp, which is at 4115' the highest point in the area. Retrace my steps on Middle Mountain Trail, back to its end at the Cold Spring Run Trail. Follow Cold Spring Run down to its mouth on the Laurel Fork. Follow Laurel Fork upstream to another ford. On other side, follow the Buck Run Trail up to the parking area.
The ford of Laurel Fork at Slabcamb Run is knee deep at worst. With the aid of my Gossamer Gear LT4s for stability, it is not bad really.
In short order I am at the junction with the Christian Run Trail and head up. It begins well, but soon runs into rocky sections and calf-high poison ivy and stinging nettle. Not so much fun in a kilt with neither socks nor gaiters, but I remind myself I've been in this sort of stuff bare-legged many times before and have gotten past the momentary discomfort. There are a few slippery spots but otherwise the Trail Glove traction is not much of a concern.
The climb out of the stream valley is lovely. At this hour of the morning it is cool, still very few bugs in evidence. At times I stop to look around and marvel in the birdsong echoing through the forest. Soon the upper reaches of the trail come into view - a meadow.
The foot path grows faint but I am not too concerned - the topo shows a primitive road running along the ridge ahead. In the middle of the meadow, there is a visual landmark - it appears to be a gravesite.
Very close by, there is a tiny natural pond alive with salamanders.
Turning back to the ridge line, I quickly find the road and trail signpost. A right turn here will take me to the Stamp. The walk along the ridge of Middle Mountain is pleasant, with cool breezes and occasional views of blue sky and puffy clouds.
The Stamp unfortunately is on private property surrounded by fencing, so it can only be seen at a distance from the road. After snapping a few pictures of the high meadows, I head back the way I came.
A short distance from the junction with Christian Run Trail, the Middle Mountain Trail ends at a gate. Beyond it is the start of Cold Spring Run. Initially this trail is a continuation of the ridge road, still fairly easy with the Trail Gloves. At one point, I stop and remove them to empty out the duff. If I wear these again on the trail I will use my Levagaiters.
I soon reach a point where the trail leaves the ridge road and descends down the west side of the ridge. The trail descends more steeply, but still on a relatively easy grade next to the run.
Soon, the trail criss-crosses the water course and becomes indistinguishable from it. Care agin must be taken on the wet rocks. But I am not careful enough - my mind wanders, replaying little loops of recently heard music to ease the tedium of the descent. I'm on auto-pilot. And then suddenly I get snapped back - the outside middle edge of my left foot has come down very heavily on a sharp wedge of rock.
Figuring it is just a bruise I keep moving and try to avoid hitting the sore spot again. Thoughts turn to hydration. It is after noon, it has gotten fairly hot, the bugs are worse than yesterday, I am not drinking enough. When I reach the next crossing of Cold Spring, I fill a liter, use my Steripen, and immediately drink half of it. It tastes fantastic.
After the crossing, the footing improves. The junction with Laurel Fork Trail is closer than expected. I head upstream towards the return ford. On the way I come across a small refreshing swimming hole and jump in. I have not seen nor heard a soul since yesterday afternoon.
The return ford is not wide, but still knee deep. Being downstream of the mouth of Slabcamp Run and Buck Run, I expect the current to be stronger, and it is. The crossing happens in a sort of slow-motion, measuring every step. The kilt is perfect - I don't miss the feel of wet pants clinging to the legs.
The last ford behind me, I start up the Buck Run Trail. After hiking all the trails in the area, I still find this one to be the most beautiful. At the second crossing of Buck Run on the ascent, there is supposed to be a bushwack trail up to White Oak Flats. If there is a trail, it is very faint and I'm not eager to deal with more brush. My right foot is now cramping a little bit. I decide to leave the exploration for another day.
The trail switchbacks up the hill away from Buck Run. The grade levels off and the trail enters a pine forest next to a meadow. The air is cool and the bugs are gone. There is something very special about this section of the trail.
Too soon it comes to an end. I am back at the car, washing my feet and changing into clean clothes for the long drive back home. Every time I leave here I think about the next time.