Thursday, January 01, 2004
Fast decents and banked turns define this 11-mile loop
The whine of a gasoline engine came from below us and to the north, growing louder by the half-second, like a lawn mower on speed. Ian Webb and I edged off the wide trail just before an all-terrain vehicle blew past, churning dirt and pebbles into the air and leaving a tunnel of dust in its wake.
"Not a bad place to ride," quipped Webb, spitting dust with each word. "Except that it smells like a Jet Ski."
We were in the George Washington National Forest, outside the little town of Big Island, some 50 miles northeast of Roanoke. Our trek on this holiday Monday was an 11-mile loop on South Pedlar Trail.
It wasn't exactly the best day for that. Breezes were nearly nonexistent and the temperature hovered around 100 degrees. Sunbathed portions of the trail felt like the inside of your car, parked and left in the sun with the windows up. In the soupy, humid shade even hardy mountain laurel were drooping. All critters -- bugs, birds and animals -- seemed to be taking the day off.
But South Pedlar itself was a romp. Its soft red clay was so parched and cracked that portions of the trail looked like a colonial-era cobblestone street. In most parts, it was about as hard as one, too, but smoother. That made for fast descents and thrilling hairpin turns on high banks carved by dirt bike and ATV riders.
A little more than 8 miles into the ride came the payoff, a high though hazy view of the James River and a railroad bridge that crosses it outside of Big Island. By then, I was out of water (more was back at my car).
Webb, who had ridden this trail once before, assured me not to worry. The 2.5 miles left in the ride were all downhill. For the next 10-minutes, our knobby tires whizzed over the dirt as we peered for trail obstacles through sweat-streaked sunglasses.
We threw our bikes onto the car and drove out of the U.S. Forest Service parking lot then pulled parked again at a nearby boat landing on the James. We waded in and ducked our heads.
South Pedlar is the outside loop of a 25-mile trail system that the Forest Service opened to recreation in 1993, said Kathy Hall, a forester in the U.S. Forest Service's Glenwood and Pedlar Ranger Districts.
It was developed with the help of the Shenandoah Off-Road Vehicle Association and is popular among ATV riders. But it's also open to mountain bikers. Hall said use of the 25-mile trail network is pretty evenly split between the two groups, with mountain bikers tending to make up the majority in the summer, ATV riders in the spring and fall. Weekends are the busiest times.
In all, there are about 25 miles of fairly wide, well-groomed and trails to ride. In terms of difficulty, I'd rate it a 6.5 on a scale of 10, with 10 being the hardest. With a free map and signposts that mark each trail juncture, the Forest Service has made the system easy to navigate.
Webb and I started at the Rattlesnake Branch ATV parking area off Virginia 130. We rode the outside loop in a counter-clockwise direction . This is the only way you'll get that great downhill romp at the end.
In general, South Pedlar is wide and more smooth than rocky, although there are some very rocky stretches. It turns up and twists down, but never takes you quite so far down as you just went up. Over 8 miles, you very gradually step up to the high overlook before making a final steep push to the top.
Because the other trails connect at points along South Pedlar, you need not ride the entire 11 miles. Lone Mountain Trail, Piney Trail and Otter Trail can make the ride shorter -- or longer, if that's what you want.
Free maps are available at the Rattlesnake Parking area.
From Roanoke, take I-81 north to the Natural Bridge exit. At the end of the ramp, take a left on U.S. 11 North and follow it through Natural Bridge. Take a right on 130 East towards Glasgow. In Glasgow, take a right on 130E/501S. 130/501 will take you over a mountain and down to the James River. When the road splits at the James, stay left on 130 E. Go 1-2 miles and look for the signs for Rattlesnake Branch ATV Parking Area, which is on the left.
Dan Casey | The Roanoke Times
This is the view from South Pedlar Trail about 8.5 miles into the ride. You can glimpse a bit of the James River in the middle of the photo.
There's a $5 parking fee at the Rattlesnake Branch parking area. It's self-service, and the receipt is a tag you hang on your rearview mirror. If a ranger catches you without a tag, your car is subject to a $50 ticket.
There is no potable water anywhere nearby, so bring your own. It's also a good idea to have some extra fluids waiting for you in your car. On a 100-degree day, I went through 100 ounces in my Camelback before the ride was over.
Dirt bikes and 4-wheeled ATVs are plentiful in the area on the weekends, but almost unheard of weekdays and evenings. When you're on the trail, you can't help but hear them coming. Often they're going fast, so it's best to stop and get off the trail until they pass.
Helmets are required for all bicyclists and ATV riders.