virginia hikes: Petites Gap, Highcock Knob, & Sulphur Spring loop, March 21 2020

With COVID-19 pandemic shutting down everything, there are a lot of questions regarding if hitting the trails is something ok to do. My impression on the aspect of social distancing is to avoid other. So it’s not just a simple questions of is heading outdoors ok. Rather the question is can I go hike somewhere not many other hikers are. Remember it’s not just contact with other, but also surfaces others have contacted. You know that rock everyone likes to sit on (McAfee), probably should avoid that. This is the reason popular parks such as Yosemite are closing as they should. Not to mention how the popular parks get tramped on the most without rangers upholding infrastructure (see the damage from government shutdown of 2019, Business Insider).

So the takeaway is go hiking, but probably should be limited to day hikes in your local area on the lesser trafficked trails. With all of that in mind, we headed to an out to explore an out of the way trail we hadn’t done before. We saw only 2 groups of hikers along the 8 mile stretch, so I’d consider that minimizing the risk.

information

  • name: Petites Gap, Highcock Knob, & Sulphur Spring loop (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
  • type: loop
  • distance:  8.6 miles
  • elevation change:  1,759 ft
  • time:  3:07 hours (2:55 hours without breaks)
  • location: Petites Gap in the James River Face Wilderness in Jefferson National Forest near Natural Bridge, VA (google map directions)

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We started our hike on the off the Blue Ridge Parkway and on the Appalachian Trail at Petites Gap. We did this to save the road walk of Petites Gap Road for last.

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Alternatively, you can start the hike at the Sulphur Spring trailhead (google map directions) where I would recommend hiking the loop clockwise and saving the roadwalk for the last homestretch. The parking availability at the Sulphur Spring trailhead is limited to a few cars only however. 

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report

We started our hike at Petites Gap on the Appalachian Trail (AT) heading southbound entering the James River Face Wilderness region of Jefferson National Forest.

The start was an uphills following the ridge of the mountain with the steepest grade at about 18% and an average of 10.2%.

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0.7 miles into the hike, there was a side trail to head to the top of the minor peak with a small rock outlook. This may be overgrown during the summer times however.

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A few steps after the minor peak, the steepest elevation gain of the hike takes place at roughly 19.9% over 0.3 miles on the push to Highcock Knob (3054 ft). This is the highest point in the James River Face Wilderness.

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The flashy name might have been overcompensation for the lack of views as it was covered with trees like many peaks in Virginia.

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Just before the AT starts to switchback down from the peak, there is a campsite with a fire ring. However, you’ll have to hull your water up to this point. The northeast views at the campsite seems like it might be better than Highcock itself.

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For the next 1.2 miles, the trail zigzags down the hill at a -10.9% grade. We met a local group backpacking down to Devil’s Marble Yard and then getting back on the AT to reach the James River footbridge (US Forest Services). It seemed they were looking to backpacking as a means for the group of kids they were leading to run off some energy.

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At the gap, there is a nice flat area to set up camp. On the old USGS map, there was indications of an old Marble Spring Shelter here. A sign indicates a water source, Marble Springs I believe. A boil warning was left here as well, perhaps the reason why the shelter is no longer here.

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I wasn’t too impressed with the hike at this point, but then the views starts to pickup. The AT continues around the mountain at a slight incline. The trail itself was on more of a ledge, meaning sparser tree cover. The view was of the East Fork Elk Creek drainage that we would head down toward.

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2.88 miles into the hike, we reached the junction of Sulphur Spring trail. This is where we left the AT turning left onto the old fire road. This is actually a 4 way junction with the little known Piney Ridge Trail (USDA, alltrails) heading off to the east and connecting to Hunt Club Rd off of the Lee Jackson Hwy (VA 501). It so remote that it’s not even on the OSM maps or the USGS Topo, only on the USDA trail map.

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The blue blazed Sulphur Spring trail was a gentile stroll down the former fire road at roughly -6.5% grade over the next 3 miles. It started off by continuing the to curve around the mountain on a ledge providing for some decent views. However, it maybe covered in the tunnel of green come summer time.

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The highlight viewpoint of the hike was 0.4 miles from the junction on an outcrop with a completely open view of the drainage below.

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The fireroad continued along the ledge and we could see Petites Gap Road on the other side, a portion of the road would we’d have to hike back up to return to our car. Also dotting the trail here were the spring flowers starting to bloom.

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About 5.2 miles from the start and 2.3 miles off the AT, the trail drops in to Sulphur Spring Hollow and crosses Sulphur Spring. For the rest of the hike out, the trail pretty much stayed just above the stream. It was a relaxing section as we were accompanied by the sounds of the rushing stream.

Near the Sulphur Springs trailhead, we pass the second group of people on the hike. They were heading in to camp. The Sulphur Spring trailhead was 5.9 miles from where we started and we would have 2.7 miles of road walk on Petites Gap Road at a 6.5% grade back to the car. We turned left onto the road and crossed the bridge over Sulphur Springs.

The road walk was surprisingly nice as we started were accompanied by Marble Springs for the first 0.7 miles. There were several campsites along the road and this may be a popular area for the locals during the summer time for car camping.

Further up on the road, there were even a couple of places with outlooks and more spring crossings.

At the 8 miles point of our hike and 0.5 miles from our car, we came to the junction with the Glenwood Horse trail, an 65+ mile trail (Mountain Junkies L.L.C).

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Just before returning to our cars, there is on last opening along the road for the view of the valley below.

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The big negative about the road was that we found plenty of beer cans and bottles littering the roadside. We didn’t have pack able with any volume or we could have picked up a few bottles. The road also seem to get quite a lot more traffic that expected for a country dirt road. So hopefully, those that visit the area in the future can be proactive keeping the area from litter.

ratings (1-5; click link for detailed breakdown)

  • views: 2. This was a nice hike, but nothing that would scream you have to do it. In a sense, this type of hike is perfect for social distancing as there isn’t going to be a lot of traffic and it has enough to keep it enjoyable. Overall, we saw only 2 other groups on the trail on a Saturday afternoon. There are a couple of views of the valley and I’m always a sucker for hikes overlooking a running stream. In this case, the portion of Sulphur Spring trail was the best part of the hike.
  • difficulty: 1. Other than the mile around Highcock Knob, the elevation profile for the hike is pretty easy. The most annoying thing was the roadwalk, specifically the flies and trash the littered the road. But those are just annoyances.
  • technical: 1. The trail was well signed and there are no technical spots on the trail

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5 comments

  1. Nice writeup. I prefer to do the loop in the opposite direction, so the uphill isn’t at the end. Note that the Piney Ridge Trail is the original alignment of the Appalachian Trail. It is found on the Trails Illustrated map and the PATC Map 13 coverage of the JRF Wilderness – the latter being the best map available of the area.

    The Marble Springs Shelter still exists! It just isn’t at Marble Springs anymore.
    http://www.wanderingvirginia.com/2016/01/james-river-face-wilderness-winter.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! That’s really interesting regarding the original AT alignments and changes along the trail. Does the PATC or Trails illustrated have indications of all the former AT trails? I wonder how much of it has changed.

      Like

      1. Unfortunately, the really old trail maps don’t provide the level of detail that they do now because they covered huge areas of the state. I get better info from old AT guidebooks. I do not recommend the Trails Illustrated map of this area – it claims that the AT goes over a cliff when heading north in the JRF Wilderness from the Matts Creek Shelter to the James River Foot Bridge – big error! Fortunately the trail signs at Matts Creek tell you differently and I doubt anyone would follow a map to that level.

        Liked by 1 person

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