Appalachian Trail from Va. 620 northward onto Cove Mountain and back, including a stop at Pickle Branch Shelter. About 6.5 miles.
We set out on this day of impending snow to try to find some actual snow to walk in before its predicted arrival in Roanoke-proper long after dark. We wanted a western-facing ridge to walk on, and chose an Appalachian Trail section west of Roanoke. We parked where Va. 620 crosses the trail, heading for the Audie Murphy Memorial 3.8 miles southbound. But as seems to have befallen us once before at this spot, we realized, once we saw the distance sign maybe an eighth of a mile in, that – duh – we were headed the wrong way. Still, Dragon's Tooth at 4.0 miles away, seemed equally fine, and we HAD gone that eighth of a mile, so we continued southbound.
Snow began falling – lightly – after perhaps a quarter mile in. And as we continued to climb, it got stronger and steadier, to the point that by the time we passed the Pickle Branch Shelter spur at about a mile, the forest was quickly filling with white, and visibility was decreasing delightfully. The Day Hiker paused us here and there to look at tracks in the snow – everything from little-bunny hops to big-deer leaps. By the time we reached the ridge line of Cove Mountain, the snow came still stronger, and at times with an almost fully horizontal angle, as the openness to the west that we had sought did indeed serve to deliver the weather. And views to the east and west off the ridge were – well, they were a gray-white wall perhaps 50 feet out.
Our hopes to walk to Dragon's Tooth soon got buried in the wind and snow: Even with good layers, several sets of gloves and hats, we realized that lunch was going to present a challenge in terms of comfort and shelter from the storm, even amid all the big rocks – the "false teeth" along the ridge before the primary formation. And so, after a few pauses and decisions to push on, conditions finally turned us around – sending us back down the mountain and toward the shelter for lunch.
We'd never been to Pickle Branch Shelter before, as its one-mile-in-from-parking rendered it a too-early or too-late stop. But on this day it provided the perfect spot to pull off wet top layers, change socks and gloves, and settle into a comfortable lunch looking out into a forest filling with snow. It's easy to forget, when it's been so long, how quiet and white and peaceful a real snowfall is. And while we have walked through fallen snow many times before over the five years that we've been heading out, this was our first full falling-snow hike.
The snow tailed off as we drove down out of the mountains. But back in Roanoke was evidence of an inch or two that had fallen while we'd been out. The real snow in the city came after midnight, and we awakened to a total of six inches or so, making for more opportunities to walk in the white, albeit urban ones.