Dead Hemlock Trees in Mountain Lake Wilderness
Left: Kurt stands next to one of the dead hemlocks in Mountain Lake Wilderness, surrounded by dense and living rhododendron. Right: A view from below, up at the skeletons of hemlocks.
War Spur Trail, War Branch Trail, Appalachian Trail, Va. 613 loop. 8 miles.
This great loop hike in the Mountain Lake Wilderness is nearly as rich and varied in terrain and vegetation as the Rock Castle Gorge loop off the Blue Ridge Parkway, but without the extreme climbs and about three miles of distance.
From the gentle-trail, lush-forest start at War Spur (and out onto the overlook at a vista with no sign of man and a wonderfully green vista save for the gray hemlock skeletons), the walk takes you through more sad hemlock skeletons, soon after the old sign announcing virgin forest ahead. Many huge dead trunks still stand, with spindly bare branches reaching skyward as if in plea. This is a favorite section of The Day Hiker, as the rhododendron is still thick, leaving much of the cool, deeply shaded feel that the hemlocks used to be such strong contributors to.
The easy, mostly flat War Branch Trail takes you to the Appalachian Trail intersection and a climb to 4,000-foot Lone Pine Peak, where I always remind Gail that we are on a highland plateau as the trail flattens out, and just 200 feet lower in elevation than on the dramatic plateau of Dolly Sods. The trail makes its way over the flat high land for nearly another mile.
It was along this section that Gail, from several steps ahead of me, suddenly let out a yelp, followed by the word "Snake!" Just to left, not two feet off the trail, was a big, rattling rattlesnake. We grabbed the always-investigative puppy and backed up in a hurry. And while Gail wanted to edge back up for a better look at a snake that was as big as your arm, the closeness to real encounter kept her back, and we made a wide detour around where she'd seen it before getting back on the trail.
The AT turns sharply left to make its way along the flank of Potts Mountain toward Wind Rock. We paused in a meadowy clearing for lunch on a mid-July day so cool and cloudy that we sat in what little sun the sky offered, with jackets on.
At Wind Rock, four Virginia Tech students took in the view as The Day Hiker noted that the last time we were there, the fog was so thick we couldn't see the stand of trees just down from the precipice.
The last section of this walk is the least-pleasing, as two miles on a gravel forest road are equivalent to half-again that far on a forested trail. And The Day Hiker, as she is wont to do, began to bemoan the road and the distance about halfway along that last stretch back to the car – a minor negative to a great walk.