Thursday, January 01, 2004

A well-kept secret

Strong lungs are required for this 17-mile trail located only minutes from downtown Roanoke

Dan Casey

Dan Casey



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Update: A reader disagrees with my assessment of the this trail. Be warned!

You are implying in this section that a novice could handle this trail. I do not recommend this for a novice for several reasons!

Due to the fact that the trail is rarely used, it is not well marked in many parts (at the top of the ridge where fall leaves cover the trail well). You may be underestimating your ability or the trail has changed since your last ride, but this ride requires a high level of skill in many areas.

The 3 mile section (where the pond is) is narrow and overgrown, it requires a bit of skill to negotiate the trail (rocks and roots) while slipping in between narrow tree openings on the trail. The last part (the downhill single track) is difficult because it combines speed, a very narrow tract, many leaves covering large pieces of slate rock and many sections that have large stable rocks in the middle of the trail that can lead to a very dangerous situation for a novice. - Regards, Catherine Welford

Dick Howard, Ian Webb and I looked at each other as the icy little pellets rained down. Landing on the thick woods, they crackled like tinder in a freshly started campfire.

Sleet? In mid-April? In Southwest Virginia? It seemed highly improbable.

Then again, we were in a highly improbable place: minutes from downtown Roanoke, six miles up a well-graded dirt road, deep into a 7,200 acre state-owned tract that is open to the public year round (including mountain bikers), yet is rarely visited, judging from the infrequent litter we found.

The Havens Wildlife Management Area is such a cool place for biking -- or hiking, or camping -- that my cohorts joked they'd have to kill me at the ride's end so they could keep this secret all to themselves.

Our ride was a 17-mile circuit along smooth and wide mountain fire road, snaking-single track and on Bradshaw Road. While challenging, the terrain isn't so difficult that a mountain biking novice like me couldn't handle most of it -- provided you're willing to get off your bike and push here and there.

But you'll need strong lungs for the climb. And finding your way may be another story. Howard, a nurse by profession and intrepid trail finder by avocation, had discovered the route. His purpose on this day was to measure distances between turns so he could map it.

Fearless Indian fighter

The 'Lewis' in this mountain's name comes from Gen. Andrew Lewis, legendary pre-Revolutionary War leader who moved to the colonies with his family around 1720.

The cagey Irishman made his name by killing Indians and claiming territory for England. He surveyed land from Virginia to Ohio, battling Indians all the way. During the French and Indian War in the late 1750s, he was captured, hauled up to Canada and imprisoned.

About 20 years later, in 1774, Lewis was credited with victory in a bloody fight against raiding Indians just west of Salem. As his own brother died and others such as William Fleming sustained disabling injuries, Lewis fortified his camp as the Shawnees attacked. That saved most of his men, allowed them to quell a native invasion from the Ohio Valley and secure the western frontier.

Next, Lewis hooked up with George Washington, another battle-scarred Indian fighter. They combined their talents against the British. It was Lewis who chased Lord Dunmore, Virginia's last royal governor, out of the colonies. The general died three days before the British surrender at Yorktown. Today, his defiant gaze stares southwest beneath a statue of Washington in Richmond's Capitol Square.

As the years passed, Lewis and his victories were memorialized, particularly in the Roanoke Valley: Fort Lewis Terrace; Fort Lewis Baptist and Christian churches; Fort Lewis Elementary School; and Andrew Lewis Middle School.

The mountain, which had been called Butler Mountain on its west side and Deyerle Mountain on the east, also took the name. This massive chunk of rock, covered with a forest of oak, hemlock, hickory and huge rhododendron, tops out at 3,280 feet above sea level. It's the second highest peak of many that surround Roanoke, one of the least developed or explored.

A big climb

Howard, Webb and I met on a blustery Sunday morning at Mason's Cove Elementary School. It's a couple miles up Bradshaw Road from U.S. 311 in western Roanoke County.

The object of our ride is evident there. The imposing mountain rises directly behind the school. It's enough to make a seasoned cyclist gulp.

Turning right out of the school's parking lot, we rode east on Bradshaw Road to county Route 700, where we took a right and began the climb on paved road.

It quickly ended in a cul de sac where a large steel gate blocks access to a dirt road. Go around the gate and you're soon winding up the mountain.

Related

Map

Despite its 6-mile length, this is a pretty easy climb. The road is wide, relatively smooth and the grade isn't steep. But the forest it cuts through is thick. You won't see many great views of the valley here.

The dirt road ends in a T-intersection with a much older and narrower logging road that's covered by a blanket of grass. We took a left here, followed this road for about three-quarters of a mile, then hung a right on a single-track trail marked by a small tower of stacked rocks.

No easy going

This trail was rocky, twisty, up and down and roughly three miles long atop the mountain's broad ridge. For someone who likes to stay on the bike, it's likely to be the least fun part of the ride. At one point or another, all three of us had to climb off and push, I more frequently than Howard or Webb.

From a sightseeing perspective, it's also the most interesting section of the ride. The single-track passes through glades of huge rhododendron and winds past large rock formations that tower above the trail. White flowers on species of trees we couldn't identify were in bloom. At one point, the trail passes a large pond that serves as a water source for deer, bear and turkeys in the refuge.

It ends on another fire road, where we hung a right. We followed this road for a couple miles, pushing up a long and steep section that was too steep for Howard and me to ride. Then we took a right on one of the best downhill single-tracks I have ever ridden.

Bad Wolf trail

Howard says this trail was one of many built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal public works project that employed hundreds of thousands of out-of-work men who lost their jobs in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Howard calls it the "Bad Wolf Trail."

This trail is barely a foot wide in many places, often covered with dried pine and hemlock needles, and very smooth. For roughly two miles, it snakes down the side of the mountain, with turns that are too tight to ride. But it's free of rocks. There are a couple spots that have eroded and are deep with leaves.

"Wow!" Webb exclaimed. "Isn't this the sweetest single track you've ever ridden?" That's when the jokes about killing me to keep it a secret began.

We finished on a bank of Masons Creek and got our feet wet crossing the creek to get back to Bradshaw Road. From there, we took a right and rode five downhill miles back to the school.

A few notes

With plenty of stops, this ride took us the better part of four hours. There is no potable water or food up on the mountain, so be prepared to bring your own. On the ride back along Bradshaw to the school, there's a convenience store you can stop at for a snack if you're hungry.

Make sure you wear eye protection, because you'll be riding through many tree branches that cross the single track. And if you're doing this any time other than the middle of summer, dress warmly.

We were really glad we had windbreakers when the sleet began to fall.

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