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James River Face Wilderness Hike

posted May 4, 2015, 9:31 AM by Justin P   [ updated May 10, 2015, 1:53 PM ]
Saturday, we headed north to Virginia for a beautiful spring hike through James River Face Wilderness in Jefferson National Forest. We left Chapel Hill a little after 7 and headed north into Virginia. After making a pit stop in Lynchburg, we headed north on US-501 into the forest and drove to the Hellgate Horse Camp off Forest Service Road 815. We left one car here, and then all crammed into the other car and made the short drive up Petites Gap Road (Forest Service Road 35), passing the Belfast Trailhead and parking at the Sulphur Springs Trailhead. There was a huge patch of wild geranium blooming right at the trailhead.


After getting our stuff ready, we began hiking up Sulphur Springs Trail (#3001). The trail is almost all uphill, but it’s a gradual ascent so it didn’t seem to strenuous. We passed into the James River Face Wilderness area almost immediately and continued following Sulphur Spring upstream, eventually crossing the creek and heading out of the hollow to a ridgeline. About 2.5 miles into the hike, we came to a nice rock overlook with fantastic views of the Elk Creek Valley below.


Although it was early in the hike, we decided to stop and eat lunch here before continuing our hike. In about another half-mile, we reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail and turned left to follow the AT. Again, the trail was mostly uphill, but gradual enough to not seem too bad. We followed the AT for a ways, eventually turning left to get on Gunter Ridge Trail (#8). In a short ways, we turned left to follow Belfast Trail (#9) down. All along this trail, we saw a number of beautiful crested dwarf irises blooming right along the trail. I have found some of these flowers in various locations over the past couple weeks, but they were all a light blue color. These irises today were a much deeper purple color and quite beautiful.


About a mile from the turn, we headed out to Devil’s Marbleyard and spent about thirty minutes climbing and scrambling around on the huge boulders. There were several other groups of people here as this is a pretty popular area. And not just for people. We saw a number of Eastern fence lizards sunning themselves out on the rocks.


One seemed to be pumping his front legs up and down and looked like he was doing push-ups. We climbed all around on the rocks for a while and got some pictures, then headed back to the trail and followed it back up to Gunter Ridge Trail.


The trail sign at the campsite was a bit misleading and we initially got on a path through the campsite that went nowhere. Then we figured out that the Gunter Ridge Trail goes a different direction (it’s not blazed) and followed along its namesake ridge. There were some great wildflowers blooming along the ridgeline and we stopped a few times to see the irises, geraniums, and even a pink lady’s slipper.


The pink azaleas were also blooming along the trail and it was quite beautiful.


At one point, the azaleas along one side of the trail had pink flowers and those on the other side had white flowers. As we got to the end of the ridge, we started making our descent down. There were at least a dozen switchbacks that made the hike down not seem too steep. As we got down to the base of the mountain, we left the wilderness area, crossed a creek and came out on Glenwood Horse Trail (#3015). Turning right, it was about a mile back to the Hellgate Horse Camp along the old road. Back at the parking area, we all crammed into the car and drove back to Sulphur Springs Trailhead to get the other car. From here, we continued on the FSR35 to the end at the Blue Ridge Parkway, and followed it a few miles to get back on US-501 towards Lynchburg. We stopped for dinner at Mi Patron in Lynchburg and had some Mexican food and beer and a great spring hike in the mountains.