Water everywhere at Fenwick Mines, Craig Creek
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
A few of rays of evening sun sift down upon some ferns along the Craig Creek trail.
- Location: Fenwick Mines Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, Craig County, five miles north of New Castle. If traveling west from Roanoke on Virginia 311, turn right in New Castle on Virginia 615, follow it 3 miles and turn left on Virginia 611 (brown forest service sign points the way). Quickly after that, turn right on Virginia 685 (another sign ), which turns into Forest Road 181. About 2 miles down this road, there will be a parking area on the right. This is the trailhead for both the Fenwick Wetlands and Fenwick Nature trails.
- Length: Eight-tenths of a mile. (1.6 miles with backtrack to trailhead)
- Elevation: 1,500 feet
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 0.5: It doesn't get much easier than this. It's a flat trail of crushed gravel, bounded by wooden rails, that's accessible to the disabled., including those in wheelchairs. It crosses ponds and marshes on boardwalks with a few piers. It would be a 0 except that (1) the full trail extends over a half-mile, ending at a picnic area, thereby exceeding my "flat, less than a half-mile" requirement for a "0" rating and (2) there is one slight climb to an overlook.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 2: Just the novelty of a marsh amid the Allegheny Mountains makes this spot worth a visit. The overlook spot, beside a large rock, affords an unusual view of a swamp in the foreground with mountain ridges in the background. Some of the trail also winds through a forest. Perhaps we should add a "Gottahear" factor here, because a choir of toads will serenade you at most times of the year as you meander through the wetlands.
- Location: See above.
- Length: 1-mile loop.
- Elevation: 1,500 feet
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 1: The trail descends from an old railroad grade on a ridgeline to the creek level and then back, so either way you go, there's a short, moderately steep climb to make. Otherwise, it's fairly level, with some rocky footing in spots. It starts out as a manicured, pea gravel trail like Fenwick Wetlands, but then turns into a more traditional dirt trail interspersed with rocks.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 2: A classic cascading stream setting surrounded by picturesque bluffs and featuring a marvelous little waterfall. It's parallel to and within constant sight of the road, which takes away a bit of its natural appeal. However, it's proximity to the forest road also makes this gorgeous spot easily accessible.
- Location: Craig Creek Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, a half-mile from Oriskany just off Virginia 817. From Virginia 311 at New Castle (right turn, traveling west from Roanoke) or U.S. 220 at Eagle Rock (left turn, traveling west from Roanoke), take Virginia 615 to Oriskany where signs mark the turn onto Virginia 817. There will be another turn right off of Virginia 817 onto a forest road, again clearly signed, that leads to the recreation area. Drive to the where the road (staying left at one split) dead-ends at a small parking lot.
- Length: 2-mile loop.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 1.5: A couple of short, moderately steep climbs take one between the two long flat areas of the hike -- the creekside road and the wooded ridgeline. More difficult than the exertion level is following the trail through a couple of grassy areas that can grow up over the trail in spring and summer.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 2: A pleasant streamside stroll across from magnificent bluffs, a winding saunter through a small ravine, and a gentle walk down the spine of a forested ridge make this hike enjoyable.
Fenwick Nature Trail
Three short National Forest Service trails in Craig County west of Roanoke present three different natural running speeds of water:
A cascading mountain stream on the Fenwick Nature Trail.
A slower moving, river-like stream on the Craig Creek loop.
A stagnant swamp on the Fenwick Wetlands Trail.
Combined, these three trails are less than four miles long. They are all easy and accessible to most anyone. The Fenwick Wetlands Trail, also called the Beaver Dam Trail, is even constructed so that people in wheelchairs can enjoy this unusual bit of nature. None of these trails, however, will occupy a day of hiking for an avid hiker, but they are only 9 miles apart, so it's possible to do all of them in one afternoon. I like to visit late in the evening when the frogs sing in the decaying shafts of sunlight.
First, the easiest trail, and the most unusual
Fenwick Wetlands Trail, or the Beaver Dam Trail, as it is marked on at least one sign , is not like anything else you'll find in this part of the state. In fact, if you mentally block out the mountain ridges in the distance, it's easy to convince yourself of being in Florida or Louisiana instead of western Virginia.
The trail heads left out of the roadside parking/picnic area at Fenwick Mines Recreation (there used to be several copper and iron mines in this area). it's not blazed, but it hardly matters -- it's a 5-foot-wide trail of pea gravel between wooden . You can't miss it. A lot of work was put into this trail.
It crosses Mill Creek on a bridge, passes an outdoor restroom, then wanders through several marshy areas and into a small forest. It crosses "black water" on boardwalks, with a few piers to the side to stop and take in the unusual sights and sounds of an Appalachian swamp. One set of boardwalks and piers loops a pond. A set of short inclined ramps lead to an overlook point by a large rock, where you can get a good look over the whole scene.
It's the ears that may be in for the biggest treat here, especially in the warmer months. A symphony of frogs fills the mountain air with croaking song. Birds and crickets sing backup, and a few really big toads toss in a deep bass now and then.
The trail eventually runs through a young forest out to a picnic shelter. This is at the main picnic area at Fenwick Mines, and could serve as a trailhead.
However, the roadside parking area gives you access to two trails at one site.
By going right at the parking area, you will go toward the Fenwick Nature Trail. What a difference a few hundred feet can make -- the character of this trail is nothing like the Wetlands Trail. This is more the like the Appalachians we all know -- a stream rushing through rocky bluffs and tall trees.
The pea-gravel, wood-railed trail runs out as the trail crosses Mill Creek on a bridge. From here, it's more traditional dirt trail, with some rocks and roots to make it rougher. This isn't a difficult trail, but it's also not as easy as the Wetlands Trail.
Down below on this gentle walk, you will hear the many splashes and gurgles of Mill Creek. The creek will get louder, and this will signal a neat waterfall below. it's at this point, a short distance from the bridge, that the trail forks. By going right, you can drop down to the creek on some short, but steep, switchbacks and rock steps. Or, you can continue straight ahead along the old railroad grade, which once served the mines in the area, and look down upon the creek below. It doesn't really matter, because the trail loops, and you will be returning whichever way you choose not to go at this fork.
There are several tree identification markers along the way. The printing on them is getting a little faded, but you can learn a lot about the trees of the Appalachians on these markers.
The lower leg of the loop is a creekside stroll, and there's not many better ones around. Be sure and take the short side trail up the bluff to the aforementioned waterfall. This little waterfall, about 12 feet high, splashes down a series of small ledges through a horseshoe-shaped (sort of) hollow in the rocky bluffs. A good place to spend some time contemplating. Climb back up from just below the waterfall back to the trail split, then go left and back to the parking lot.
Craig Creek Trail
If something a little longer is more your speed, the Craig Creek trail is just nine miles away from Fenwick Mines outside the mountain valley hamlet of Oriskany.
The Craig Creek trail offers a lazy saunter by the river on an old roadbed on the first leg of a 2-mile jaunt that also includes crossing a meadow, negotiating a small ravine and walking atop a wooded ridgeline.
The trail drops from the parking area, past an outhouse (with yellow trail markers on it), then switchbacks down to another parking area with a few picnic tables. Look toward the left at the far side of the clearing here for an old roadbed, marked with yellow blazes. This is the trail route. The road is blocked by a dirt embankment to stop vehicles.
Craig Creek is more a river than a creek. There are a few shoals over which the water rushes, but for the most part, the water moves more lazily than in Mill Creek, but less so than in the Fenwick Wetlands. The road follows alongside this aspiring river for half a mile or so. The other side of the creek is lined with gnarled bluffs that slowly peter out as the stream also becomes more gentle. The old road, blocked by a couple of dirt barriers, runs through mayapples, ferns and dogwoods, with some taller poplars, maples, sycamores and even a few elms also interspersed. To the left, a few feet higher than the eroded roadbed, is a flat field of tall grass and weeds.
When the road disappears into the water, the trail will turn up and to the left into the meadow. This spot is also marked by yellow blazes on a post. From here, for about a quarter-mile, the trail is difficult to follow as it traverses tall grass and brush. In most places, the yellow blazes mark the trail pretty well. In general, the trail roughly parallels the creek for a while, crossing a small ditch on some logs, then bends to the left, putting the creek at your back.
Finally, it leaves the meadow into a hilly, forested area. It follows a gully for a while, crossing it twice. This gully had little water in it when I hiked it last, but it's probably a nicely flowing little stream in wetter times. it's flanked by steep, fern-lined hillsides. The trail crosses the gully, then rises at a moderately steep angle along the steep hillside through a thick layer of leaves. It follows the gully, about 15 feet above it, for a while, before descending slightly and crossing it to the left. There was some water in it at the trail crossing.
The forest gains more oak and pines than at the river level through here. After crossing the gully, the trail again angles up at a moderately steep incline for a short distance before leveling off in the mixed forest. From here until it descends back to the parking lot, there will be only a few minor ups and downs as it pleasantly traverses this ridgetop forest.
There are three potentially confusing spots. The first is a power line clearing. The trail turns sharply right here and actually avoids the clearing. Do not cross under the power line. The second is trail split. Go left. The direction of the loop trail is marked on a sign nailed to a tree. The right fork will take you to an alternate trailhead on the road you came in on. Finally, the trail again reaches the clearing for the same power line. This time, go straight across it. Remember to follow the yellow blazes, and you shouldn't have much trouble.
After about a mile of gentle, forest strolling, views of the bluffs on the other side of the creek become visible through the trees. This is a sign that the trail will soon start sliding downward, eventually popping out of the forest into another grown-up field. Because you can see where your car is parked, this one is easy to traverse, but the trail tread is almost non existent.
With so many mini-ecosystems and abundant water in a small area, a rich diversity of wildlife finds a niche around Craig Creek. I have seen deer, turkeys, herons, rabbits and a fox in just two trips here. I hope your hike will be just as wild.