Kurt, Gail and Fluff
Kurt and Gail with guest trail dog Fluff.
Belfast Trail past the Devil's Marbleyard to Gunter Ridge Trail to Appalachian Trail to FR 35/Sulphur Springs Trail and back. 9.2 miles.
On a beautiful and warm January Saturday, the six- or eight-car parking lot at the base of the Belfast Trail was already full when we arrived at 12:30, so we joined a small line of along-the-road parkers in a spot where the locals are known to raise a ruckus over any car parked even across from their land. (None was raised this day.)
Our guest for the hike, white-dog Fluff, made us even more sharply aware, with his high-waving white tail, of this last day of deer-hunting season, and helped dictate that this would be an out-and-back hike – mostly within the relative safety of the James River Face Wilderness – rather than a loop that would take us along vehicle-accessible forest roads.
This walk begins gently enough, with a nice wide trail and a stream crossing or two; the hardest part of the climb is at the point where the boulders of the formation loom to your left. The Greatest Day Hiker Of Them All had too big a lead on me to even think about calling ahead to suggest a brief foray onto the rocks, determined as she was to get the long grade to the Gunter Ridge Trail behind her. As we passed by the rocks, we did hear the distinct calls of one of the prominent species of the boulder field – older boys and young men scrambling, yelping and celebrating where they are.
You attain the ridge line at 2.4 miles, and from there, the walk along the Gunter Ridge and the Appalachian trails is mostly a pleasant walk through the forest. We continued to the point where the AT intersects with Forest Road 35 and the Sulphur Spring Trail (is this the closest thing there is to a major in-the-woods intersection in Virginia?) and found a sunny spot on the south face for lunch. Lunch with a dog can in many instances be a bit of a beg-and-whine bother, but Fluff, aside from occasional plea-eyed looking, is generally content to pick a spot in the shade and wait for the water and goodies he seems confident will come his way. At the other end of things, he is also somewhat unique in his propensity toward teenage-boy-audible burps once he's finished eating.
The walk back, aside from the gentle climb just prior to reaching the Gunter Ridge Trail, is easy and fun, to the point that the two-hour walk in became an hour and 40 minutes in the other direction, even with the brief pause at the Marbleyard, where only one of the three of us wanted anything to do with boulder-hopping out into the sunshine for even a short distance. When I was maybe 20 boulders out, there came a call from father up formation, from a member of the aforementioned the rock-inhabiting species: "Come on up, the views are terrific!"
"Maybe another time," I called back, concurrently ruing lost youth and celebrating The Day Hiker's penchant for keeping us in motion along the trail. (Unless of course it's for WILDFLOWERS or something.)