Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Flat Top Mountain

Ok, let's try this again...

Last week I completely wrecked my legs during an embarrassingly short hike. So badly, in fact, that I was laid up all weekend. Theory number one was that I had gotten old all of a sudden. Theory number two was that I'd taken too many weeks off and tried to get back into it too quickly. Theory two seemed more likely on paper but felt less likely in my head.

Today I felt recovered and I was determined to find out.

Back to South Fork.

It was cold and misty between Watson and Dyer Gaps. The forest looked lonely and haunted.

 Spooky Forest

Actually it didn't look too lonely. There was a group of more hikers than looked like they could fit in one car, getting out of one car, at Watson Gap. We exchanged waves and smiles. Presumably they were hiking the Benton MacKaye.

I'd hit the BMT later but I had a more obscure destination in mind at first - Jack's River Road.

I've heard a lot of stories about Jack's River Road over the years. Apparently it was the main drag around those parts way back. There was apparently a community all up and down the river and up on Flat Top Mountain next door.

A while back I ended up on the road, pretty much by accident and found some monuments marking the location of an old church and an old school. There would have to have been houses within walking distance. Maybe I could find one of them.

I parked at the end of the road and started walking south, upriver.

Past the aforementioned monuments...

 Jacks River Road Monuments

...and the church pavillion.

 Mt Gilead Church Pavillion

It was kind of cold, 34 degrees or so. I had fleece tights and a cycling jacket but I was a little worried about the barefoot shoes, especially if they got wet. Turns out they were fine, even in the low 30's. Totally warm, all day. They got soaked too, but being all vented, they actually dried out quickly. Exactly the opposite of what I expected. Very strange, but awesome.

There was a nearly overgrown spur to the left and I began to explore.

I found a flat spot along a creek that appeared to once have been cleared, but there was no evidence of a house or anything. Further up though, I found another such spot with what might have been an old, collapsed chimney.

 Upper Jacks River Homestead Ruins 1?

Yeah, doesn't look like much in the photo, but... It was right off of the road, right next to a creek, in a large, flat spot that appears to have been cleared at one point. Most significantly though, the stones were different from others in the area. The creek had plenty of rocks in it but they were all little and round and some different type of rock. I don't know rocks. I should probably learn rocks. Point is, the pile didn't look like it could have occurred there naturally.

The road eventually just blended into the mountain so I headed back and continued upriver.

There was a little clearing just past the old school site and some clover growing in it, right along the trail. It was my lucky day.

 My Lucky Day

What are the odds?

The road narrowed. Reroutes around old mud holes and downed trees increased in frequency. I saw indications of equestrian traffic at first, but eventually the canopy closed in. I'm not saying you couldn't conceivably get a horse up the trail, but I don't imagine it would be any fun.


 Upper Jacks River Homestead Ruins 2?  Chimney

Another crumbled chimney?

Again, it doesn't look like much in the photo but there were also little piles that could have been footings in spots that would have made sense.

 Upper Jacks River Homestead Ruins 2?  Footings

Of course those look even less like anything in the photo.

Just upstream there was an impressive boulder field.

 Boulder Field

Then the "road" crossed the creek and became a lot steeper and a little harder to follow.

And there was a shoe.


What the heck? Why one shoe? How does someone lose one shoe waaay back in the woods? This isn't the first time I've found a lone shoe either. This happens regularly.

So weird.

Just upstream from the shoe there was this little waterfally thing. Not much of one, but I figured I'd take a look.

 Upper Jacks River Falls - First Cascade

Then the trail got super steep. It just paralleled the creek, like 30 feet away, right up next to it. Super steep.

Then there was another cascade.

 Upper Jacks River Falls - Another Cascade

...and another one.

 Upper Jacks River Falls - Yet Another Cascade

...and then, abruptly, the trail got totally overgrown with rhododendron. One minute it was totally clear. Crazy steep, but totally passable. The next minute, totally overgrown and steep.

I crossed the creek and noticed that I was walking in the ruins of an old bridge.

 Bridge Ruins

The main beams were still in place, and one of the cross members lay in the creek. Wild.

The higher I got, the colder it got, and a cloud had been sitting on top of the mountain earlier, covering everything with frost.

The most interesting things with frost on them were the spiderwebs.

 Frosty Web

"Frosty Webs"

There were several more little cascades. All very hard to get a decent look at, much less a photo.

The uppermost was easier but somehow I managed to get it out of focus.

 Upper Jacks River Falls - Final Cascade

The trail leveled out a bit but just got harder and harder to follow. I ended up having to parallel it in the comparatively open woods.

Eventually it crossed the creek again at another old ruined bridge.

 Old Bridge Ruins

The next hundred yards must have taken 5 minutes or more to push through, but then... Ahhhhh...

The Benton MacKaye.


It swooped in from the south and followed the route of the old road for a quarter mile or more. Ahhhhh.

I never really understood flocked Christmas trees. Why would you cake it all up in white... Ohhhh...


Not sure why, but it had not occurred to me before seeing that particular tree. Then it all made sense.

When I reached the top of the mountain, everything up there was flocked.

The BMT diverged from the old road so I diverged from the BMT.

I could see a clearing ahead and it looked like the area I was standing in had once been part of it. The road kind of blended into the woods as they tend to do in a spot that had formerly been cleared.

It looked like there might have been a house there at some point too.

 Flat Top Mountain Homestead Ruins?

The ground looked like it had been leveled and a big pile of rocks lay to one side of middle of the leveled area. Hard to say though. Those same rocks are prevalent up there and a pile like that could form naturally. Dug Gap mountain, for example, is covered with such piles. Hmmm.

I divined my way over to the field, possibly following the route of the old road, possibly not.

Right where I emerged, there was this weird old rebar and chicken wire cage thing, laying up against a tree.

 Rebar and Chicken Wire Cage

I'm sure there's an explanation for this. No idea what it is though. Weirder and weirder.

The road picked up on the other side of the field and eventually teed into Double Hogpen Road.

 Lonely Road

That's what I call it. I'm not sure what its real name is, or if it has one. The USFS probably calls it a food plot connector or something. It's the road that FS64A becomes after the gate, that leads to several food plots all over the top of Flat Top. Ordinarily roads like that are a few hundred feet long. This one is miles, probably longer than FS64A itself.

It was a long and lonely road.

The wind was blowing too and I had to pull my hands inside my jacket. That's something in need. Gloves. Seems that every winter I say that but every winter I end up not having bought any.

There was a little side trail to the right that I'd seen before, while scouting the TNGA route, years earlier. I took it, expecting it to lead to a campsite or something. Instead, it meandered around and then just paralleled the main road. What the heck? What's the point of this trail? Ohh...

 WMA Boundary

WMA boundary. Got it.

Flat Top isn't totally flat, and as I headed north it became more and more north-faceish - colder, windier. Everything was covered in frost feathers.

 Frost Feathers

The trail led right to the end of FS64A and kind of teed into it a 90 degree angle. Directly across was another trail that I wanted to check out. Old topo maps show it leading up to an old fire tower.

Indeed, it led to the remnants of one, at least.

There were 4 footings, and a fifth one in the center without any bolts in it.

 Flat Top Tower Ruins - Footing

Nearby there was this old slab too.

 Flat Top Tower Ruins - Slab

I guess there was an office up there or something. It seemed like an odd place for a game check station, but the only time I've seen an office by a fire tower is when it's been converted into an antenna and it needs a little radio shack. I wonder what the story is there.

The Benton MacKaye crossed right there, so I took it north.

It was even colder and lonelier than the road.

 Lonely Trail

Everything was flocked and frosted there too.

 Frosty Pine

It was also very rocky and the wet leaves were sometimes half-frozen wet leaves, the kind that slip immediately because they're covering wet, half frozen slabs of rock. I tried to break my legs over and over and my shins took quite a beating.

Right before the BMT teed into FS64A I started seeing flags.

 BMT Reroute Flagging

Driving in, I'd seen some flags too, and guessed that they might be for a future reroute. It appeared that I might be correct.

I didn't follow the flags exactly, but at the intersection with 64A, I noticed an old roadbed leading on and followed that. It turned out that the reroute planned to use that old roadbed too though and before long I was following the flags.

The new route should offer a decent view of Flat Top.

 Flat Top

In winter, at least.

There was a little overgrown spur to the right that didn't go anywhere and eventually the BMT reroute diverged from the old roadbed.

They'd cut new trail right up to that spot, actually.

 BMT Reroute Progress

The old road hit a ridge and eventually dove down off of it, became a series of humps and eventually blended into the hillside.

There was a fairly large deer ahead of me. I kept seeing its prints and hearing it rustle around. I even saw it a few times but it kept moving just out of range of a decent photo. I'd sneak up on it and it would let me get within 20 yards before bounding away again. Dangit!

I made my way at last back to Jacks River Road and to my car. There was a short little spur right where I parked that led to what looked like a good spot for another homestead. I didn't find a chimney but I found a spot that might have once been a ford, and also this gnarly old fence post.

 Fence Post

Man! It was my lucky day. That clover was right. I found all kinds of cool stuff. The woods was totally full of it, everywhere I went!

I walked for 3 hours and 45 minutes, only 15 minutes short of my previous effort, but didn't suffer the slightest hint of discomfort later. Theory number one about getting old all of a sudden is apparently busted. Maybe I just got back into it too quickly but it doesn't seem like I'd be able to just wait a few days and be fine if that were the case. Stranger and stranger.

Well, whatever the deal is, I'm good now and it's comforting to know that I can still go running around in the woods without injuring myself from the effort.

I enjoyed my little adventure, but South Fork still holds many secrets, and if all goes well, I'll be back again soon.

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