Hiking Upwards recently uploaded a new loop near Buchanan, VA, 40 minutes from my place. It seemed like a hike with vista views to the west for a nice sunset. This was important since I was starting my hike late on a Saturday as I was looking to stretch my legs and to walk off the stress from watching a closer than expected football game for my alma mater.
You can also check out the companion video of the hike here.
- name: Cove Mountain loop (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
- type: loop
- distance: 7.5 miles (my hike: 10.3 miles with Cove Mountain peak side hike)
- elevation change: 1950 ft ascent and descent (my hike: 2607 ft)
- time: 4:30 hours listed (my hike: 4:05 hours)
- location: Jefferson National Forest near Buchanan, VA (google map directions)
My hike ended up including a few mile extra along the Appalachian Trail (AT) to the forest covered summit of Cove Mountain as I was looking for an additional view point to the west for the sunset.
The original description of the hike from Hiking Upwards is shorter as indicated in the map below.
There are several alternative access points for this hike. The first is at the AT junction with Jennings Creek Rd (VA 614 – google maps). With this trailhead, it would allow you to skip the unmainted former AT trail and stay on the maintained Glenwood Horse Trail.
Secondly, you can also access the hike via Yellowstone Road (FR 365), a dirt road, that is at the beginning of the Glenwood Horse Trail and crosses Little Cove Mountain Trail (google maps). I can’t verify reliability on the condition of this forest road as I only briefly crossed it in the dark. This would also allow to take the Glenwood Horse Trail and skip over the unmainted form AT trail.
Lastly, you can hike this section of the AT as a point to point hike. One point is the previously mentioned AT junction with Jennings Creek Rd (VA 614 – google maps), while the other is the AT junction with Parkway Dr (VA 43) and the Blue Ridge Parkway at Bearwallow Gap (google maps).
I pulled up to the trailhead just before 5pm. The sunset was scheduled at 7:30pm, so I had plenty of time to covered 4-5 miles to get to the viewpoint on the AT. The trailhead on Jennings Creek Rd was the formerly part of the AT, but the AT has since been rerouted to cross Jennings Creek Rd further north. There is spots for a few cars on the side of the road.
The hike starts by crossing Jennings Creek, which was very low on this hot late summer day.
The trail that the hike starts on is the Little Cove Mountain Trail, as indicated by a sign right after the bridge. There are also a couple campsites here also situated at a former AT shelter location.
0.1 miles into the hike, the trail splits to indicate the two different directions you can take for the loop. I decided to head right and uphill to do the loop counterclockwise as indicated by Hiking Upwards. The initial section is an unblazed, unmaintained, old AT trail, so I didn’t want to it in the dark.
Shortly after I started uphills, there is a offshoot to the left to head down to the streambed. Typically there is a cascade running here, but the creek and cascade was dry when I visited. There was a cool rock formations though.
The entire section of the old AT trail is about a 2/3 of a mile with an average incline of 10.3% grade. The hike uphills is mainly in a tunnel of green with a couple of different things to note. First, there is a crossing of a small stream, which was also dry on my hike. Then the trail splits 3 separate times on disused and overgrown fire roads in which you take the uphill option on all three (right, right, and then left). The worst thing to note was the many spiderwebs across the trail. This was clearly a path less taken.
At the end of the old AT trail, the trail T junctions on the orange marked Glenwood Horse Trail. I turned right per the directions. The horse trail start to wind around the mountain side with sections overgrown with vegetation. The first 1/4 of a mile is flat and wide.
The trail narrowed the next 1/3 of a mile to start up more around the mountain at an incline about 9.4%
before intersecting with the AT. I turned left on the AT heading southbound and continued up toward the ridge of Cove Mountain, which was in another 2/3 of a mile at an incline about 13.1%. However, the AT was much easier as it was well groomed and minimal spiderwebs to slow me down. Once I reached the ridge, I reached another junction with the Buchanan Trail branching out to the right. I continued straight on the AT.
For the next 1.6 miles, the trail stays up on the relatively flat ridge in a tunnel of green.
About 3.2 miles into the hike, I finally arrive at a viewpoint. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the best viewpoint on the ridge with a perfect view out toward the direction that the sun would set at.
It is conveniently situated a few steps ahead away from the Cove Mountain Shelter. There were a few southbound (SOBO) through hikers on this day. I chatted with Celsius and John for a few minutes about their hikes while sharing some of my whisky. If you plan on camping here, do note that there isn’t any water available here.
It was still early at about 6:10pm when I reached the view point and shelter. I still had 1:20 minutes before sundown, so I decided to continue on to look for other viewpoints and to shorten my night hike. Shortly after the shelter, the trail starts to gain elevation again at about a 10.8% grade over 3/4 of a mile. Along the way, I could see glimpse of both side of the ridge including my first glimpse to the east of the radar tower on Apple Orchard Mountain.
At the top of this climb, was a rock pile to the left and uphill of the trail. To the right was an opening with a view more toward the southwest. From this viewpoint, I could see Parkway Dr (VA 43) that connects Buchanan to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but not so much the sunset as the trail had turned back toward the east.
I continued on hoping for a better view. Directly after was a literal tunnel of green,
before the last uphill over 1/4 mile with an elevation gain about 16.1% to the highest point of the loop. Along the way was an open vista to the east of the Cove Creek drainage courtesy of a 2008 burn.
This wasn’t the viewpoint I was hoping for as it pointed the wrong way. Unfortunately, I was already at the junction to head back down the mountain via the Little Cove Mountain Trail.
I still had about 30-40 minutes from sundown at this point, so heading all the way back to the viewpoint near the Cove Mountain Shelter was an option. The other options was to explore the rest of the Cove Mountain ridge, including the highest peak of Cove Mountain further SOBO on the AT. I didn’t have any information on whether there would be an outcrop or vista at the peak, but I decided to take the risk and continue on. The idea of exploring and the negative of backtracking lead me to continue on.
My risk in the end didn’t pay off as the AT all along the rest of Cove Mountain was covered in trees. I ended up seeing specs of the orange sunset through the tunnel of green.
I returned to the junction after an extra 3 mile excursion and headed down the Little Cove Mountain Trail. For the first mile, the trail drops at about a -16.3% grade among the trees. There were plenty of spiderwebs draped on me as I descended in the dark. After the mile, the Little Cove Mountain trail comes to a fire road (FR 365) dead end. There is an old sign here justifying the clear cut that took place on Cove Mountain back in history and 2 gates. The left gate coming out from the trail is the beginning of the Glenwood Horse Trail, the same trail I turned on near the beginning of my hike. The right gate is the continuation of the fire road. The Little Cove Mountain Trail is just right of the right gate and will parallel the fire road for the next 2/3 mile.
You’ll know you are on the correct trail if you see blue blazes. After continuing on the Little Cove Mountain trail for 2/3 of a mile, the trail crosses the fireroad and starts to drop at about a -13.2% grade curving around the side of the mountain. At the end of the downhill, the trail crosses Little Cove Creek a few times. Again, the creek was dry during my hike.
A few more steps and I was back at the initial junction with the old AT trail and then across the bridge over Jennings Creek and back at my car. I was covered in spiderwebs and was glad to be heading home for a shower.
- views: 2. The most enjoyable portion of this hike was the AT section as it consists of a nice ridge walk. There are few vistas with 2 specific rock outcroppings that you can hang out on. Had I had the patiences to chill at the outcrop by the shelter, I wouldn’t have been in for a nice sunset. For the majority of the hike, you are going to be in a tunnel of trees. However, there are sections throughout where there is some openness to the forest that would make for some good views during foliage season. Jennings Creek at the beginning is always a treat, but you don’t follow it. You do follow Little Cove Creek for a bit more and there is typically a cascade on it, but the creek was dry on the late summer day that I hiked it. If you are looking for solitude, you’ll find it on this hike. The only people you might see is AT through hikers.
- difficulty: 2. The elevation profile for his hike has is around 2000 ft making it a 2 rating. Additionally, most of the elevation change was on lesser used trails with plenty of spider webs across the trail to make your life a little bit miserable. I ended up finding microscopic bugs, perhaps ticks, on me even after showering and then taking a bath. The amount of self cleaning I had to endure after the hike was as bad as the hike itself.
- technical: 2. The trails off the AT were not signed at several of the junctions, so you needed to know where you should turn. Most of the trail are in decent condition and are pretty clear, but they are not used often and may become overgrown in the future.