War Spur is a peaceful, almost primeval hike

Like many places in Western Virginia, fall brings exciting colors to trees such as these maples on the Chestnut/War Spur Loop atop Salt Pond Mountain.

Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times

Like many places in Western Virginia, fall brings exciting colors to trees such as these maples on the Chestnut/War Spur Loop atop Salt Pond Mountain.




  • Location: Salt Pond Mountain, 3 miles from the Mountain Lake resort. Drive west from Blacksburg on 460. About 7 miles west, past Newport, turn right onto Route 700, following the signs to Mountain Lake. Drive the winding road 7 miles up the mountain, then continue past the resort and lake on route 613 to your right. A mile and half past that, take the left fork. In another 1.5 miles, there will be a parking area to the right. This is the trailhead.
  • Length: 3 miles.
  • Elevation: 3600-3800 feet.
  • Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 3: The fauna -- yellow birch, towering hemlocks and a fern-floored forest -- give this hike a different feel than others in western Virginia. There's also a great picnic spot on a rocky outcropping with a great view.
  • Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): of 2: Only one descent/climb of any significance, 200 feet down into and then back out of the War Spur Branch valley. The rest is fairly level.

Such a peaceful place to have such a violent name.

The War Spur/Chestnut loop on Salt Pond Mountain near Mountain Lake is a cool little hike. And I mean that literally.

At nearly 4,000 feet, a humid 90-degree day in the Roanoke Valley evaporates to a comfortable spring afternoon of refreshing breezes with temperatures in the mid-70s up there.

On the flip side, I've greeted winter's first flakes weeks before any made it to the valley, and there can be a foot of snow on the mountain when the ground is bare just 1,000 feet below.

Movie makers chose the nearby Mountain Lake resort as the on-location filming site for the hit "Dirty Dancing" partly because it had an upstate New York feel to it. The yellow birch-red spruce forest common on the mountain is more like northern climes than typical southern Appalachian greenery, even at a similar elevation.

For real treehuggers, the highlight of the War Spur hike is the 15-acre patch of mammoth hemlocks in the War Spur Branch valley. Most of our ancestors were on the other side of the Atlantic when these trees were saplings; some are nearly four centuries old.

These trees were too hard to get to for early loggers, and thus survive to this day, although the pesky hemlock woolly adelgid a tiny insect -- is starting to accomplish what axes and crosscut saws couldn't. All the more reason to go see them now.

War Spur is the name of a leg of Salt Pond Mountain that extends northeast from the bulk of the mountain. Some cursory research did not uncover the origin of the name, but it may have something to do with the Civil War movements on the mountain.

In 1864, Union forces escaping to West Virginia crossed the mountain, ditching tons of ammunition at a site known as "Minnie Ball Hill," a few miles down the road from the War Spur trailhead. Metal detectors can still turn up a few bullets and cannonballs there.

Enough weather, movies, biology and history -- how 'bout some hiking!

Starting from the trailhead, the trail veers off in a "V" shape. It doesn't really matter which way you go, but I am going to describe it by first taking a right, or taking the loop counter-clockwise. So if you go left first, start at the bottom of the story and work up.

The first section of this hike saunters through an open forest with a couple of tiny creeks. The best part is the cinnamon ferns waving in the breeze during the warm seasons. This part of the trail has a sort of a prehistoric feel, and it is a wondrous sight.

This section is called Chestnut Trail because it was once a chestnut forest, before the blight that started wiping them out in 1904. There are still a few chestnuts along along the War Spur, but nothing like the grandeur they once filled our forests with.

Eventually, you can get a few views through the trees -- more in leaf-off season -- as the trail works along the edge of the ridge. The trail will then come to an intersection. Straight ahead is theWar Spur Overlook, which is required viewing for any hiker who's come this far. The view from these stacked sandstone plates is almost completely pristine, but you might see some signs of civilization if you look close enough.

This overlook takes in a sweeping view of the ever-deepening War Spur Branch valley as it widens to the northeast. If you look to the left as the valley rises, you can see some darker green trees towering above the others. These are the hemlocks I told you about.

Back at the intersection, the War Spur trail (right by returning on the overlook spur; left from the Chestnut Trail if you didn't go to the overlook) dives through a thick -- and I mean dark and dank, like descending into a cellar -- patch of rhododendron. If you're not cooled off already, you will be here.

It gets little warmer and lighter as the rhododendron gives way to the huge hemlocks. They're too wide around to hug. With the muddy bogs and gurgling stream here, that prehistoric feeling comes back.

The trail climbs out of this lovely little patch of primeval forest back into a more typical Appalachian oak-hickory forest. The trail will come to another intersection; the right fork leads to the Appalachian Trail a mile away, the left fork leads less than a quarter-mile back to the parking lot.

With a car parked at the Wind Rock trailhead further down the same road (a very bumpy one, especially for small cars), you can make a neat 8-mile through hike combining this loop and the AT.

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