Wild Oak National Recreation Trail in George Washington National Forest
See below for full details on the loop including various map and links.
I am happy to report that I finally did this hike. I was planning on heading to PA to complete the Laurel Highlands Trail, but the weather was looking nasty up North so I stayed in VA. I am so glad it worked out this way. The WONRT is everything itís billed to be.. Difficult and totally worth it.
I arrived at the trail head on Friday at about 11:30 AM and was on the trail by noon. Day one was a total of roughly 10.5 miles, the first 7 of which are uphill to the summit of Little Bald Knob (4351 ft Ė the highest point on the trail.) It was indeed a strenuous climb even though the several trail runners that whizzed by me smiling as I lumbered up the slope tried to make it look easy. I hear the views are expansive and beautiful from the top of LBK, but when I got there it was snowing and blowing such that that visibility was only 100 yards or so. The snow eased up soon after I started back downhill and the rest of Fridayís hike was downhill for 3 plus miles to the North River valley and my digs for the night, Camp Todd. Partway through that descent one of the trail runners who passed me earlier in the hike came up behind me again.. Thatís right, this guy (Jim) was lapping me! He and a number of other trail runners were out there doing the TWOT 100. 100 miles (or 4 loops) of The Wild Oak Trail. (Side note: They run the Hot TWOT in October.) What incredible athletes and enormously friendly folks. Jim ended up hiking with me for that last mile and showed me a new ďlong-cutĒ to Todd Camp that avoids a river ford by using the FR95 bridge. I got settled in and set up my tent at about 6:00 PM, made some soup and passed out before 7:00. I didnít wake up until 7:00 the next morning. I guess I earned that 12 hours sleep Ė the longest night of sleep Iíve had in a long time!
I woke up on Saturday morning feeling refreshed. While I was laying in my tent brewing some coffee and prepping the dinner that I was supposed to make the night before (rice noodles with peanut sauce and veggies Ė a hearty breakfast for sure) I heard my new buddy Jim shout ďGood morning Tony!Ē as he ran by. He pushed on through the much of the night and this was now his third loop. Iíd be lying if I said this shout out of the dim morning woods didnít startle me. Anyway, day two was expected to be my short 5.2 mile day. I had visions of whiling away the afternoon with a good book, some tea and a few sips of scotch. It didnít turn out that way, but it was still a fantastic day in the back country. The day started with immediate ascent of Big Bald Knob (4100 ft.) It was indeed a workout, but nothing too taxing. Right after summiting BBK I starting see a lot more trail runners heading the opposite direction and they all looked completely exhausted. I soon found out why, the descent from there down to the end of the dayís hike at FR96 was pretty long and very steep. I expected to find a good water source and decent place to throw a tent near FR96, but that wasnít in the cards. I asked a runner if they had seen a water sources nearby and he invited me to fill up from the stash they had hidden behind a tree for the runners. It felt a little like cheating, but I got over it. So, after sitting in the little parking lot for a little bit, eating habanera cheese w/ Triscuits and re-hydrating a bit I decided to throw my pack over my shoulder and set off for another 5 miles or so. Immediately after crossing FR96 the trail ascended sharply. As I ascended I got to an open saddle-type ridge and I could see ahead what I thought might be Hankey Mountain (which I would be summiting today) but frankly it looked way too far away and way too far UP to truly be my destination. As I hiked up and up.. and up some more I came to realize that what I saw way up there really was Hankey Mtn. It was a tough hike to the top and at times I had to force myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but once there I was immediately rewarded. Not necessarily with great views (itís not really an ďopenĒ summit), but with accomplishment. I could just see the valley I left two hours prior. I was eye level with the more distant peaks that towered over me as I munched on cheese and crackers. Thatís the thing with this hike though. It beats you to hell, but immediately rewards you for taking it.. every time. Every time you think that the trail is taking you over something that you could have easily gone around you realize why -- because the view is worth it, or the satisfaction alone justifies it. And it never once fails to hold up its end of the bargain. With that said, the trail quickly turns easy for awhile after traversing Hankeyís first and second summits. It shares the right of way with a jeep road and follows an easy ridge line which often has expansive views in both directions. The weather had been pretty mild this trip thus far aside from a little snow, but at this point (roughly 4PM on Saturday) the temp started dropping sharply and the wind began howling. I had hoped to set up camp at a lower elevation where the temps and wind might be milder, but dark was approaching and those ten strenuous miles were wearing me down so I found a nice clearing to settle into for the night. Just after I got a fire going and dinner started (Peanut Pad Thai with Veggies and Spiced Octopus by the way) Jim stopped by with another runner, Eva (sp?). This was his 4th loop and Evaís 3rd (I believe.) He had just 5 miles left yet somehow looked like he was ready for another one hundred. We talked for few minutes then they went on their way. It remained very windy that night and quite cold (I suspect single digits), but of course I was perfectly happy cocooned in a couple layers down as I was. This was another great day on this fantastic trail.
Since I hiked 5 miles further on Saturday than I originally planned, I only had 5 miles left to do on Sunday. I decided to knock those miles out early so I awoke at 5:00AM, packed up and hit the trail. It was still completely dark, but the trail was easy to follow as it shared the jeep road for another mile or two before splitting off. At this point it was almost day break so when the trail became a narrow footpath again it was bright enough out to follow it. It was fortunate that much of that morningís hike was on a ridge line with a clear view east. The sunrise was a nice treat. About half way through todayís hike, just before descending into the North River valley I started getting some open views to the west and I could see these distant mountains and high ridges forming a large bowl. It hit me all of a sudden that those were the mountains I just hiked up and down, the valleys I dipped into and the ridges I ambled. It looked sort of impressive and again, this was the immediate reward for the hard work. I could imagine how those runners felt seeing that view, their accomplishment the first time. And what about the second, third and fourth time? After enjoying this moment I began the final drop into the valley. This was an easy section that included pretty views of the North River and very cool suspension foot bridge that crosses it. By the time I got back to the car I was tired, sore, and thirsty (my water bottle froze solid during the morningís hike), yet I was already daydreaming about when I could come back.
Wild Oak Initial Trip Notes
I have been thinking about this particular hike for a few years now. Everything I've read about it basically says that it's difficult and
worth it. Backpacker Magazine calls it a "26-mile lung-buster worth every last gasp." Sounds good to me. (The full article is posted below.)
The trail is in the North River Area of the George Washington National park in western VA. The trail head is about a mile west of Stokesville, VA (directions here.) Itís great for me as itís only a 2 hour drive from Richmond.
This loop holds two challenges for me. The first being a lack of water sources along the way. I like to keep my pack light (close to or below 20lbs generally), but on this trip I might have to carry all of my water with me. Itís a three day trip and I need at least 3 liters per day, so thatís a total of 19lbs of water. There must be at least a couple opportunities for refill Ė Iíll have to research that further. The other challenge is pretty minor. On these 3 day trips I like to leave home Friday and return early
on Sunday. The standard daily mileage breakdown on this trip is 10/6/10. Hiking 10 miles on Sunday would get me home fairly late. Maybe I can start at a different point on the loop and make it 10/10/6..? Iíll research that further as well.
I donít really know yet when Iím doing this one -- hopefully by mid-June. If I go then I may finally get to see the rhododendrons in bloom. Iíve spent a lot of time in those VA / WV mountains, which are simply lousy with rhododendron, yet Iíve never been there in mid-June when they are actually blooming.
From Backpacker Magazine (By Bill Burnham, Mary Burnham, May 1998)
If you're looking to escape the D.C. rat race, there's no better haven than the 4,000-foot peaks and high ridge trails of George Washington National Forest's North River area. Together with the neighboring Little River and Hone Quarry recreation areas, this secluded backcountry in the Appalachian Mountains will take you worlds away-at least for a few days.
Running through the heart of this scenic region is the Wild Oak Trail, a 26-mile lung-buster worth every last gasp. Solitude rules here, partly because the length and difficulty deter couch potatoes. An ambitious hiker can devour the Wild Oak in a two-night/three-day trip. A steady ascent from the get-go ends at a camp atop Little Bald Knob. The highest point on the Wild Oak, 4,240-foot Little Bald Knob is a view-monger's dream and an excellent place to admire the sunset.
Links, Notes, Etc...
Directions and trail notes from unknown source (.pdf)
Backpacker Mag Stuff
MidAtlanticHikes page devoted to the WONRT
Gorp page devoted to the WONRT
USDA Forest Service info page for the WONRT
waypoint list for the WONRT
A map of George Washington National Forest is available for $5 from George Washington National Forest, Dry River Ranger District, 112 North River Rd., Bridgewater, VA 22812; (540) 828-2591.
A blow-by-blow account of the Wild Oak Trail is contained in 50 Hikes in Northern Virginia ($14, Backcountry Publications, 800-233-4830).
USGS quadrangles: Stokesville, Reddish Knob, Palo Alto, and West Augusta.
From Harrisonburg and Bridgewater (southbound):
Take State Route 42 south to intersections with SR 727, just south of Bridgewater. Turn west (right) on SR 727 to Sangersville: then turn south on SR 730. At Stokesville, turn west (right) on SR 718 for about a mile where SR 718 becomes FDR 95, at intersection with the Wild Oak Trail.
From Staunton (northbound):
Take U.S. 250 west. Ten miles west of Churchville, turn north (right) on State Route 715 (which becomes FDR 96), and travel a little more than four miles to intersection with Wild Oak Trail at a point between Segments B and C. This intersection is a watershed divide and the road descends into the North River area.