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St. Mary's Wilderness, George Washington National Forest, VA 11/19 - 11/21/21

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  • St. Mary's Wilderness, George Washington National Forest, VA 11/19 - 11/21/21

    Back in November, I finally had the opportunity to undertake a weekend trip into a place that has long been on my "to visit" list. The St. Mary's Wilderness is a 10,000 acre federally-designated Wilderness Area in Virginia's George Washington National Forest, just south of Waynesboro. The area has a reputation for scenic mountain streams, a gorgeous waterfall, and history in the form of remnants of iron and magnesium mining operations from the mid-20th century. I actually had plans to spend a weekend in the area with a friend back in Spring of 2017 that fell through at the last minute due to a personal emergency- so it was nice to finally have the time to make a visit happen 4.5 years later.

    I decided to undertake a modified version of the itinerary suggested on the page for the area. Rather than start and end my hike, I'd start at the downriver trailhead along the St. Mary's River. And I'd pick a basecamp somewhere near the junction that starts and ends the loop, allowing me to hike the loop itself with just a day pack. The result was a lollipop route of sorts, with an additional out-and-back side trek to visit the falls.

    I wasn't able to arrive at the St. Mary's River trailhead until late on Friday evening, well after dark. To my surprise, there was a group camped right in the trailhead parking area, with a roaring fire going in the gravel lot. National Forest regulations tend to be fairly liberal, but the St. Mary's Wilderness is one portion of the George Washington National Forest that has been subjected to additional regulations due to overuse and abuse- and two of those added regulations are very explicit in that neither camping nor campfires are permitted anywhere near the St. Mary's River trailhead. This group was either unaware, or simply didn't care.

    No matter, my destination lay several miles upriver on the St. Mary's River, deep into the Wilderness Area. I started out on the old road, which parallels the river. The moon was just about full, and at times I was provided with excellent moon-lit views over the river.

    For the most part, even the dark, the route was fairly obvious and well maintained, and soon I was crossing the river at the first wet crossing. I made it across easily, although without waterproof boots my feet would've gotten wet.

    Whereas the old road bed made only a single crossing of the river between the trailhead and the turn off at Sugartree Branch, the modern day trail makes three crossings. The second and third crossings are necessary to avoid a stretch of the old road bed that has washed out along a cliff face dropping into the river. I missed the turnoff to the second crossing... and instead found myself clinging to a narrow ledge above the river. It was still passable- barely- but also not for the faint of heart as a slip or a trip here would send one tumbling into the river about 8 or 10 feet below.

    I soon made it to Sugar Tree Branch. Here, the St. Mary's Waterfall Trail continues up the river whereas the main St. Mary's Trail- which provides the main access deeper into the Wilderness- turns to ascend along Sugartree Branch. As my goal for the night was a tent site further into the backcountry, I took this route and climbed alongside the tributary- which I could hear splashing and crashing but not quite see in the darkness.

    My intended destination for the night was one of a number of campsites that existed in the vicinity of Mine Bank Creek that I'd read about during research in preparation for the trip. In fact, about tenth of a mile before reaching Mine Bank Creek, I found a nice established site a short distance off trail above an unnamed tributary of the St. Mary's River. There was plenty of flat ground here so I decided to call dibs and move in for the weekend. Not much more than 2 hours after leaving the trailhead, I was all set to turn in for the night.

    I spent a moderately frosty night that had me wishing I'd carried a slightly warmer sleeping bag. In any case, however, I was up and moving about early the next morning, as I had plans to try to traverse the roughly 10 mile loop consisting of the St. Mary's Trail, the Bald Mountain Jeep Trail, the Bald Mountain Overlook Trail, and the Mine Bank Trail- and I wanted time to poke around and explore along the way.

    Before departing, I spent a few minutes poking around the vicinity of my campsite. It was soon obvious that I was camped atop mining remnants- I had a bit of a tailings pile beneath my feet to thank for the relatively level, flat ground. Indentations in the hillside nearby, densely covered in mountain laurel, were all that remained of the harvested bedrock and ores.

    I also found a smaller but also nice campsite above mine, on a stretch of old road grade that disappeared uphill into the forest beyond.

    Before long, I had my day pack packed and I was ready to set out for the day. A few minutes outside of camp I arrived at the junction with the Mine Bank Trail.

    I'd decided to hike the loop clockwise, so I stayed straight on the St. Mary's Trail. Shortly beyond the junction, I arrived at Mine Bank Creek itself, which was easily rock hopped across.

    I also took a short detour downstream on Mine Bank Creek to check out the confluence of that creek with the St. Mary's River.

    About 10 minutes or so beyond the Mine Bank Creek, I noticed a fairly well established but unmarked side path that branched off of the St. Mary's Trail to the north. I followed this path a few hundred feet off trail to a couple of campsites located near a small tributary of the St. Mary's River- one of these sites was pretty "eh," but the other was moderately sized and fairly nice, with a couple of stone seats facing the firepit and room for maybe 2 or 3 tents.

    Back on the main trail and not too far beyond, I arrived at a small stream that I easily rock hopped across. This stream is nameless on the USGS topo map, but some other maps refer to it as Bear Branch.

    Just beyond the Bear Branch crossing was a large and level area that was clearly once another focal point of mining operations in the St. Mary's valley. Several old concrete foundations stood out alongside the trail. What their purpose served I was only able to wonder.

    Adjacent to the foundations was another broad and flat spot in the forest, possibly also the spread tailings left over from mining operations. This patch of flat ground was also clearly a moderately popular spot for camping- I spotted one fairly well-established and well-used fire pit, as well as the remnants of 2 or 3 other old pits that appeared as though they hadn't been used in a few years. The amplitude of flat ground conducive to tenting here clearly gets occasional use by multiple groups sharing it concurrently, but I think the relative remoteness of this particular spot helps to keep this from being a common occurrence.

    Just as I was getting ready to continue onwards, I did spy a moderately well-established path that branched off to the northwest. I followed this a few hundred feet to another large and nice campsite on a high bank overlooking the St. Mary's River. Clearly another choice spot to camp.

    I'd also started to notice by this point that some of the campsites I'd visited had old metal tags with stamped letters and numbers nailed to nearby trees. At first I'd though that it was maybe an old system of marking campsites, but the letters/numbers made no sense. I eventually decided that they were likely the remnants of a long defunct research project involving the campsites- perhaps measuring resource impacts at each site over time. The tags were not new, and indeed some of them were quite close to falling off of the trees to which they are affixed.

    From the campsites at Bear Branch I continued onwards to the east, slowly ascending further up the St. Mary's River drainage on the old road. Soon I was rock hopping across Chimney Branch, another tributary of the St. Mary's River...

    ... and not far beyond I was rock hopping across the St. Mary's River itself, much smaller here than it was even only a mile or two downstream.

    Soon the climb became much steeper, as well as a bit more washed out and rugged, as I began to climb and out of the valley itself. It was far from a horrendous climb, but as I was stilly evidently following an old road, I found myself wondering just how well jeeps and trucks must've fared traversing this route in decades past, prior to the cessation of mining operations and the area's designation as a federal Wilderness Area. .

    Eventually, the old road leveled off amidst rocky outcrops and a few views through the trees back out over the valley. Not long after it became fairly flat, I arrived at the far end of the Wilderness Area, as denoted by the classic wooden US Forest Service Wilderness Area sign.

    Multiple maps had promised a pond in the vicinity of the Wilderness Area boundary. I found it, nestled in a stand of pines and mountain laurels, a short distance to the southeast. It was small, fairly marshy, and well on its way to filling in, but it was a pretty sight nonetheless. I'm sure that a relatively-high elevation ridge-top pond in an area that is otherwise largely devoid of ponds and lakes is probably host to a somewhat locally unique ecosystem.

    The pond also bore evidence to how low the overnight temperatures had dropped up here, as evidenced by the thin veneer of ice on the surface of the water.

    While poking around the vicinity, I also stumbled across a decently well established campsite hidden in the forest on the west side of the pond. It was a bit on the smaller side, but otherwise nice.

    The vicinity of Green Pond is host to a number of old roads and trails and it took some trial and error to find the route eastward to the Bald Mountain Jeep Trail. It looks like hikers have largely forsaken the old road bed for a herd path that runs parallel through the woods to avoid a few wet spots. Soon, however, I was stepping out of the woods and onto the Jeep trail.

    The Bald Mountain Jeep Trail is an OHV trail that traverses the ridgeline above the St. Mary's Wilderness, and for the next several miles it would be my route on foot, all the way to the east end of the Bald Mountain Overlook Trail. I had a bit of trepidation about walking what is essentially a trail primarily intended for use by off-road vehicles, but for the most part it made for a fine walking surface. It was rocky in spots, but no worse than anything else I'd traversed on the area's foot trails. There were a few puddles but for the most part these were very easy to walk around and my feet stayed perfectly dry.

    Just about every pull off alongside the Jeep trail had a fire pit... some of these pull offs clearly began life as drainage ditches that had slowly filled in over time. I'm not sure that I'd be super keen on camping in a spot that all of the runoff from the road obviously drains to. (And as I would find, there were much nicer and better-drained campsites along the road further east, closer to the Blue Ridge Parkway.)

    While making my way up Flint Mountain via a series of switchbacks in the Jeep trail, I came across a Toyota parked alongside the road. At first, I figured it was a hunter who was off in the woods somewhere nearby... but as I approached closer to the parked truck, I noticed that it had clearly been sitting there for some time. The windshield had accumulated a substantial number of fallen pine needles, and the smashed driver's side window was covered in a tattered plastic bag.

    And the other side of the truck came with another surprise- the suspension for the passenger side front wheel was pretty much done for. It looked like a temporary repair had been attempted using ratcheting straps, without any success.

    What calamity had befallen the truck exactly, I would only wonder. In my mind, I wanted to imagine that the driver had managed to roll it, although I suspect that the windows and frame would be in visibly worse shape if this had been the case. Regardless of the root cause, the truck was clearly going nowhere anytime soon. The Forest Service was clearly aware of the truck's predicament- a Forest Service law enforcement officer had placed a noticed on the dashboard advising the truck's owners that it needed to be removed from National Forest lands or else the truck would be seized. The deadline for the removal had come and gone without any hint of activity on the part of the truck's owners or the Forest Service. It would not all surprise me if the truck were still there now, several months later.

    Not long after the summit of Flint Mountain, I passed a pull off on the east side of the road that drew my attention. A brushy herd path departed from the end of the pull off. As nothing was indicated on my map, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see where it went.

    Continued in next post...

  • #2
    Continued from above...

    I was certainly glad in this instance that I let my curiosity guide me! The herd path lead a few hundred feet to a small rocky outcrop with a fantastic view over the Kennedy Creek valley to the north.

    On nearby Kelley Mountain, some rock outcrops caught my eye. According to the trail map, Kelley Mountain is devoid of both roads and trails, so it could be a good spot for a future bushwhack endeavor.

    Far off to the north, another area that has long been on my "to explore" list was visible through the haze- the extreme south end of the Massanutten Mountains.

    Also on the horizon but not nearly as far away was the south end of Shenandoah National Park. It was easy to see how this particular range of mountains earned the moniker, "Blue Ridge Mountains."

    Adjacent to the rocky ledge was a small campsite, cramped due the dense mountain laurels in the vicinity, but otherwise nice. A single 1 or 2 person tent could make it work but larger groups would struggle to fit. As it was atop the ridge, it was also a dry site without any water sources nearby.

    After enjoying a quick snack at the overlook, I returned to the Jeep trail and continued my trek southwards towards Bald Mountain.

    Not too far beyond the overlook, I found the distinctive spikey seed pods of an American chestnut lying in the road. They were already split open and empty, so I've no idea if they were fertile seeds of a healthy chestnut, or the sterile, empty seed pods of a sick one. But still a neat find nonetheless.

    Beyond Flint Mountain, the Jeep trail joined the ridgeline that runs northwest from Bald Mountain for a gentle climb up to the true summit of Bald Mountain itself. Along this stretch, the quality of the campsites adjoining the road improved considerably- nearly all were nice sites. Again, these were all still dry sites so backpackers should be prepared accordingly. (And I'd imagine that most of the use is by the off-roading crowd, who probably carry ample water in their trucks if they are planning to camp out.)

    At the junction with the upper end of the Mills Creek Trail, I encountered a decent clearing and a nice (but obviously artificially manufactured) view of the Three Ridges area to the southeast. Three Ridges is yet another area that as of this trip, was still on my "to visit" list (although I'd get the opportunity to undertake a day hike there a few weeks later).

    Soon, I was approaching the summit of Bald Mountain itself. The Bald Mountain Jeep Trail doesn't go directly over the summit, but rather a side trail branches off to provide access to the high point. The side trail also passes the upper terminus of the Torry Ridge Trail. Both the Torry Ridge and Mills Creek Trails provide opportunities for extended point-to-point backpacking trips in combination with the St. Mary's Wilderness. Mills Creek is primarily a valley trail, whereas Torry Ridge is a ridge traverse. Both trails meet far to the northeast near Mt. Torry Furnace.

    The summit of Bald Mountain may have been bald once, but these days it is well covered in forest. There's substantial history to the summit- it was once home to a firetower and an observer's cabin, both long since removed (although the presence of a non-native Norway spruce hinted at past habitation of the summit area). The Appalachian Trail also once crossed the high point of Bald Mountain, before a substantial re-route moved that trail much further south and east.

    I did notice some evidence of camping in the summit clearing where the firetower once stood, but honestly I thought the campsites further north along the Jeep trail were nicer spots to camp. (Also, one would need to be careful not to camp within the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as the property line separating US Forest Service lands from National Park Service lands passes extremely close to the summit!)

    A short distance south of the true summit I found another spot with an artificially manufactured view again towards the Three Ridges area, and chose to stop here to each lunch while soaking up the sunshine.

    After lunch, I returned to the Bald Mountain Jeep Trail and continued southwest. Not too far from the summit of Bald Mountain I arrived at the eastern terminus of the Bald Mountain Overlook Trail. I'm not too sure how the decision was arrived at to name this the Bald Mountain Overlook Trail- it neither has any overlooks on the trail itself, nor does it provide access in any way to the overlook of that name located on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. Rather, it traverses the upper reaches of the Bear Branch drainage- and Bear Branch Trail might've been a better name.

    It wasn't the quickest way back to camp as it drops down into that drainage and then climbs back out, but I was curious to explore it and there was a few hours of daylight left.

    At first, the descent down into the Bear Branch drainage was gentle, but as I continued down it got steeper and stepper. Soon, I could see (and hear) the headwaters of Bear Branch crashing down over rocks below me.

    Crossing Bear Branch was a simple matter of stepping across the stream, still quite small this far up the drainage.

    Some maps show a campsite along the trail here in the upper reaches of the Bear Branch drainage. The site wasn't hard to find- it was plainly obvious and adjacent to the trail, not far downstream of the stream crossing. It was an OK site- fairly well established but kind of rocky. It would take a little bit of effort to situate your tent such that no rocks were poking you in the back if you don't have a thick sleeping pad, I think. It also a somewhat modestly sized site, with room here for maybe 2 or 3 tents.

    From the campsite, an old road bed disappears into the mountain laurel downstream along Bear Run. I was sorely tempted to explore it, but at this point the shadows were indeed starting to lengthen and I had several miles to do yet to get back to camp.

    The climb up and out of the headwaters area of the Bear Branch drainage followed that same old roadbed, but in the opposite direction. It was a moderately steep climb that had me sweating by the time I returned to the ridgeline above.

    Not long after leveling off atop the ridgeline, I arrived at a junction with the upper end of the Mine Bank Creek Trail, which would be my route back to camp via a descent along Mine Bank Creek. As this junction lay only a few hundred feet from a trailhead parking lot alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway, and my map promised a nearby overlook alongside the parkway- the Fork Mountain Overlook- I decided to take a quick detour to check out the overlook. It was... not great. Clearly artificially manufactured, and clearly in need of some more tree cutting if any worthwhile views were to be restored. Although it would probably be better off just being allowed to revert to forest, to be honest.

    From the overlook, I returned to the Mine Bank Creek trail and set out downhill on my final stretch of hiking for the day. At first the trail swung west, then made a sharp turn east to enter the extreme upper end of the Mine Bank Creek drainage. As I rounded this turn, I discovered a small cairn marking a faint herd path that continued west. I pulled out the map, and surmised that this herd path provided a connection to the Mine Bank Mountain trail further to the west still... again, I was sorely tempted to explore, but I also wanted to get back to camp while there was still a little bit of daylight left. Begrudgingly, I continued downhill along the Mine Bank Creek Trail.

    I didn't have to travel very far before reaching the headwaters of Mine Bank Creek. The stream seemed to spring out of nowhere, and quickly grew from a trickle to a steady flow. The trail also made frequent crossings of the stream along the higher up stretches, forcing me to rock hop repeatedly to keep my feet dry.

    I also began to pass a number of scenic cascades as I descended along the stream, and stopped to take a few photographs along the way.

    Some maps show a campsite along the upper reaches of Mine Brank Stream, where a prominent yet unnamed tributary joins the stream from the west. I found the site... and was honestly pretty unimpressed. It was pretty much lacking in anything resembling flat, level ground, and it was far too close to the stream to be anywhere close to in compliance with Leave No Trace. The fire pit was pretty clearly a product of desperation at some point in the past, and the site very obviously does not receive any kind of regular usage. In general, the Mine Bank Creek drainage was too narrow and rocky to facilitate any decent camping.

    As I continued downstream, I encountered more and more cascades, all very scenic. As the sun was well behind the mountains at this point, I couldn't pass up the opportunity for a few long exposure shots. This is a stretch of trail that I wouldn't mind returning to on a cloudy day for more photography- there were additional cascades located well below the trail that I was unable to spare time to photograph, as I was still racing the waning daylight. This was a very pretty stretch of trail.

    The trail soon joined an obvious old roadbed. In the lower stretches of the drainage, the terrain became quite rocky and the sides of the drainage closed in. Despite the presence of the roadbed, the terrain underfoot grew moderately rugged.

    Continued in next post...


    • #3
      Continued from above...

      Eventually, the terrain leveled off, the rocks subsided, and not long after I found myself arriving back at the junction with the St. Mary's River Trail. From here, it was only a few minutes of walking further to return to my campsite on the small tributary a short distance to the west.

      With the sun having been solidly out of sight for well over an hour at this point, and darkness fast approaching, a noticeable chill was already collecting in the valley. Firewood was fairly plentiful around my chosen campsite, and accordingly I decided to start a small campfire for warmth while I cooked and ate dinner.

      I spent a very pleasant evening hanging out by the fire while I enjoyed my dinner- Knorr rice sides with plenty of butter added to help ward off the evening's cold. It was well after dark by the time I turned in for the night.

      In contrast with my early wakeup call on Saturday morning, I chose to sleep in on Sunday. I only had to hike several miles back to the trailhead (plus a short side trip to check out St. Mary's Falls), and the drive back to civilization from there was less than 2 hours. And while Saturday evening wasn't as cold as Friday evening, the temps still dropped into the low 20s, and I accordingly I was in no rush to exit my tent Sunday morning. It was well after 9 am by the time I finally emerged from my warm and cozy sleeping bag and began the process of breaking down camp.

      Eventually, camp was broken down, my pack was packed, and I was ready to set out back to the trailhead. I was particularly interested in the hike out, as it was all terrain that I'd passed through in the dark on my way in on Friday night, so I'd had relatively little opportunity to enjoy any of the sights along the way. And so with a quick hop across the stream I'd been camped near, I was on my way.

      Not long after departing camp, I came across another herd path, this one branching away from the St. Mary's River Trail to the northwest. As I wasn't racing the sun this early in the day, I decided to explore and see where it lead.

      Again, my curiosity was rewarded, as the herd path lead to another rocky ledge with substantial views out and over the lower portion of the St. Mary's River Wilderness. The gorge carved by the river was in full view below, and the scenery was splendid (apart from the single rock atop the outcrop that some idiot had covered in spray paint).

      After admiring the view for a few minutes, I re-traced my steps back to the main trail and continued westward. The old Jeep trail that the trail followed was plainly visible as it meandered into and out of a number of shallow hollows, generally sticking to the same elevation.

      The epicenter of the mining operations had been plainly obvious during my nighttime hike in 2 evenings prior, but as it was late and my priority was finding a campsite in the interior of the Wilderness Area, I hadn't spent any time poking around. Upon my return to the area, daylight made it plainly apparent just how extensive the mining operations had been. A number of foundations were visible in the area, including what appeared to have once been some sort of water-powered rock and ore sorting machine built into the hillside.

      What was once the headquarters of the mining operations is now clearly a popular camping area- somewhat to my surprise, given the lack of any nearby water sources. Perhaps it was the even grades resulting from how the tailings were left behind- there was certainly no shortage of flat, well-drained space for tenting.

      There was one particularly nice (and obviously well-used) site in a clearing atop the old tailings pile, undoubtedly an excellent campsite to star gaze in.

      Another nice and well-used site was located directly below the old sorting machine.

      While poking around the vicinity, I found a third particularly nice site hidden nearby in a pleasant stand of pine trees.

      And lastly, I found a fourth fairly-well established site atop the hillside, directly above the old sorting machine.

      And scattered throughout, I found a few additional overflow fire pits indicators that there are occasional periods of high use when even these 4 well-established sites aren't enough to handle the number of groups camping here.

      About 10 more minutes of hiking on the old road bed brought me down into the Sugartree Branch drainage, where I hopped across the stream before turning to follow it further downhill.

      As with the center of the mining operations, I'd been aware of the stream during my evening hike into the Wilderness, but in the darkness was unable to appreciate it fully- as stated above, I'd heard the water splashing and cascading nearby as I hiked, but even the light of my headlamp had been unable to illuminate it very well. I did not fully expect what I encountered in daylight- as with Mine Bank Creek the afternoon prior, Sugartree Branch was an exceedingly beautiful mountain stream full of cascades and small waterfalls. This was also a stretch of trail that I could see myself returning to on a cloudy day for more excellent long-exposure photography.

      The Sugartree Branch drainage was also lined with impressive rock outcrops and cliffs, as Mine Bank Creek had been.

      And the base of one of the sets of cliffs was home to a small campsite, with room for 2 or possibly 3 small tents.

      Soon, I was arriving back at the confluence where Sugartree Branch joins the St. Mary's River itself. Here, I had one last side trip to undertake- a short hike upriver to view St. Mary's Falls, unquestionably the most well-known and most well-visited geographic feature within the St. Mary's Wilderness. It wasn't a very far hike out of my way, so I elected to stash my pack behind a tree, grab my camera, and proceed unladen.

      The lower portion of the St. Mary's River is a particularly popular destination for both day hiking and overnighting in the George Washington National Forest. Overuse and abuse have lead the Forest Service to implement additional regulations for the area- in addition to the aforementioned ban on camping near the trailhead, camping is also prohibited near St. Mary's Falls. And while camping is allowed along the river between the trailhead and the falls, campfires are not.

      I would see a number well established campsites along the trail paralleling the lower river. It was plainly apparent that Forest Service personnel routinely visit this stretch of trail to remove fire pits to discourage campfires in accordance with the ban- and I wouldn't doubt if law enforcement also makes nighttime visits to enforce the ban via tickets and fines too.

      A few hundred feet upstream of the trail junction, I was faced with a wet crossing of the river- the 4th such crossing to access the falls, if one is counting consecutively from the trailhead. As during my evening hike in, I was just barely able to make it across with dry feet, thanks to my waterproof boots.

      As I continued upriver, I was treated to nice views provided by the river itself- cascades and areas that appeared as though they'd make for nice swimming holes during warmer weather. I don't doubt that on hot summer days, this area can be packed with visitors.

      The trail also passed below an area of impressive rock scree lining the wall of the gorge. Clearly the St. Marys River drainage is undergoing some fairly active activity as the river continues to erode the gorge deeper.

      The 5th wet crossing was also easily rock hopped, although once again I was thankful that I'd elected to wear waterproof boots for my hike, as many of the rocks I used as stepping stones weren't quite above the surface of the water.

      Continued in next post...


      • #4
        Continued from above...

        No more than a few hundred feet of hiking beyond the 5th crossing of the river brought me to the falls themselves. I'd understood from my research in preparation for my trip that the St. Mary's Falls are one of the more popular destinations within the George Washington National Forest- and it was easy to see why. The falls are undoubtedly one of the more photogenic waterfalls I've ever visited on a hike- and aside from the wet crossings of the river, easily accessible to boot.

        And unfortunately, some of those visitors had seen fit to leave lasting evidence of their visits. A number of the rocks nearby the falls were covered in graffiti- including evidence of the digital era such as hashtags and Instagram handles. I found myself muttering, "this is why we can't have nice things" as I surveyed the graffitied rocks near the falls.

        After spending a few minutes enjoying the natural scenery of the waterfall (while also becoming more and more disgusted with each new discovery of additional graffiti), I decided it was time to head out. I re-traced my steps back to where I'd left my pack near Sugartree Branch, and then continued downstream along the river.

        Before making the 3rd crossing (which was much easier to spot in the daylight), I retraced my steps back to the washed out stretch of old road where I'd traversed by clinging carefully to the rocks. I thought about retracing my steps exactly and following the narrow ledge yet again, but in the daylight it was obvious that the crossings were the easier route by far.

        It took some care to keep my feet dry at each crossing, even with my waterproof boots, but I was able to make it across the river repeatedly without catastrophe. I paused after making the 3rd crossing to snap a photo looking back across the river.

        And took photos of both the 2nd and 1st crossings before gingerly stepping out onto the just-barely-submerged rocks to make my way across.

        It wasn't long before I was arriving back at the trailhead, and thus closing the book on yet another Virginia backcountry exploration.

        All in all, it was an excellent trip and I was glad to finally get the chance to explore an area that had been on my "to visit" list for years. The geography and vertical relief of the area provided more splendid scenery than I'd anticipated- I'd known about St. Mary's Falls but hadn't anticipated how scenic Sugartree Branch and Mine Bank Creek would be. And the mining operations added a bit of an anthropologic historical element of interest as well.

        I don't know that I'd recommend the full loop including the Bald Mountain Jeep Trail as "essential" for enjoying the full area, but I wouldn't dissuade anyone from doing it, either- as off road trails go, the Jeep trail wasn't too bad for hiking on.

        And it's definitely important to emphasize the issues stemming from overuse and abuse of the lower St. Mary's River stretch to anyone considering a visit to this area- especially an overnight visit. Make sure you're aware of the regulations (including the ban on camping at the trailhead and at the falls, as well as the ban on fires in any campsites along the river between the trailhead and the falls).

        And for those looking for solitude, the more remote portions of the Wilderness Area are certainly a better bet than anything the lower stretch of the river has to offer.


        • #5
          The everlasting question...

          Do we own the forest as a community and deal with the defacing by morons? Or keep in the hands of private owners who in order to have such land either have to exploit its natural resources, or have wealth acquired by other means - most likely exploiting humans or some other resources elsewhere?


          • #6
            I do generally believe the idea of "broken windows" (should probably clarify here that I'm not at all discussing "broken windows" as a policing tactic). That is to say, perceived social norms play a huge role in how people choose their behaviors- and when visitors to backcountry areas see graffiti, they are much more likely themselves to engage similar depreciative behaviors, including adding their own graffiti.

            Unfortunately during this particular visit, I had neither the time nor the tools to even consider trying to undo some of the damage wrought by the would be "artists." But I have on a few other past backcountry trips taken it upon myself to clean up graffiti of a similar type- spray paint and/or paint pens on rock.
            Last edited by DSettahr; 02-20-2022, 11:04 AM.


            • #7
              I tend to agree - I'm not sure what drives people to spray paint rocks, but obviously they don't see the whole picture as something unspoiled. And perhaps, as you say, the process is self-perpetuating.

              As far as shelters being defaced, I think to a certain point it doesn't bother me, but I know some that are road access and they are absolutely destroyed. Not just carving and charcoal writing, but spray painted and physically damaged.


              • #8
                Yeah, should have clarified that I still feel there's a difference between someone writing their name using charcoal or even carving it into a lean-to wall or ceiling, and spray painting a lean-to. And those paint markers still bug me too, even when the "art" is confined to a small corner of the roof or wall.

                In any case I edited that comment out, as in retrospect I realized it could've been construed as encouraging lean-to graffiti, which was certainly not my intent.


                • #9
                  I managed to look through all the photos in the album. It's really quite a beautiful area. It reminds me of a cross between Lake George and Bristol hills (maybe that's an odd description) but I see many similar ecological and geological structures between those two.

                  The lack of hemlock and abundance of mountain laurel is a striking difference between our environs and these.


                  • #10
                    There were tons of hemlocks in the area... until the hemlock woolly adelgid killed them all within the last 10 years or so. If you look closely in the photos, you can see a few younger hemlocks still alive, as well as the fallen trunks of the older generation.

                    The loss of the hemlock overstory in mountain coves and hollows is actually a really big ecological issue in the Mid-Atlantic region. There's concern that without the shade of the hemlocks, the local trout fisheries will be significantly impacted... in the spring, hemlocks provided shade necessary to keep mountain streams cool enough to support trout before the broadleaf trees have all leafed out.


                    • #11
                      I wondered if that might be the case...

                      It looks awfully strange to see all those creeks devoid of them. I was also wondering if the mountain laurel played a similar role ecologically to the smaller hemlock.

                      I wonder what other kinds of ecological impacts the increased temps will have. We always focus on the fish, but often there are a myriad of other issues that come along as well.


                      • #12

                        Thank you for taking the time to share your pictorial adventure with us. I enjoyed the photos and your commentary. I noticed that in one comment you indicated "Mountain Laurel" growing, however it looks more like Rhododendron than Mountain Laurel unless the mountain Laurel was nearby. They often grow near each other.

                        I despise graffiti in the forest. Certainly a sign of bottom feeders. However, I have noticed some have left their mark by carving into the stone. Some dates are rather ancient. Less obtrusive, but sometimes I bring instant cement powder in a little bag. All you need is water and the rock can be covered and obliterates the graffiti. Darkening it to blend with the shade of the stone is an option. I know some do not agree with this method but it is easier than bringing gray paint with you.
                        Last edited by Schultzz; 03-11-2022, 01:17 AM.
                        Never Argue With An Idiot. They Will Drag You Down To Their Level And Beat You With Experience.


                        • #13
                          I mentioned it, and I honestly don't know the difference between mountain laurel and rhododendron. I know there is one, but I don't see enough of them to know.


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by montcalm View Post
                            I mentioned it, and I honestly don't know the difference between mountain laurel and rhododendron. I know there is one, but I don't see enough of them to know.
                            Mountain Laurel leaves are smaller and they bloom before the Rhododendron.
                            Never Argue With An Idiot. They Will Drag You Down To Their Level And Beat You With Experience.


                            • #15
                              Yeah, I'm familiar with both. There was definitely a few rhododendrons mixed in (you can see a couple in the first daytime campsite photo), but the vast majority of evergreen understory in the area was mountain laurel, with the characteristically smaller leaves.