There were boulder strewn forest roads, swollen streams due to recent rains, muddy roads 8-10 inches deep of soft & sticky mud, brutal grades in excess of 18-20% and overnight snow, yes SNOW, in May on the top of the ridge. Slate Springs, VA you lived up the hype and pushed our bodies and equipment to their limits. But you know what? We won. We won when we were rewarded with incredible views, the echo of laughter and a warm campfire late in the evening and early in the morning.
We set out on a Sunday morning from the parking lot on Tilghman Rd. on a unseasonably cool spring day our spirits were high. The sky was blue and pock marked with white clouds. Trees and underbrush were sprouting that bright green color they can only muster early in their efforts. (I didn’t see the NO overnight parking signage until our return on Monday afternoon – oops).
The sound of gravel under tire on a loaded bike is a sweet music.
Our first real climb was 14.5% on Union Springs Rd. approaching Union Spring Hollow Lake. Triumph at the top but little did we know what was to come would make this little hiccup look like a children’s playground.
This is the George Washington National Forest. The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests stretch along the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and even cross into parts of West Virginia and Kentucky. They combine to form one of the largest areas of public land in the Eastern United States covering 1.8 million acres of land in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Approximately 1 million acres of the forest are remote and undeveloped and 139,461 acres have been designated as wilderness areas, which eliminates future development.
Yeah, it felt that big and it felt that remote – especially upon reaching the ridge and our camp site at Meadow Knob. But we had a long ways to go to get there.
Lower on the mountain the gravel roads were in perfect condition – buttery smooth in places with the occasional puddle yet to be filled in with new gravel. As anticipated the higher we climbed the road conditions became more and more difficult to pass. We were traveling a counter clockwise route that began on Tilghman Rd. eventually connecting us to Union Springs Rd. and our climb to the ridge.
The first hint of trouble was the mud. I’m not talking about the fun mud that leaves you a little dirty – I’m talking about mud that sucked up a tire, collapsed in on top of it and caused all forward progress to cease. I would dare say that even my Fat Boy and it’s 4.6″ tires would have suffered the same fate. After talking with a local (one of the two or three we saw the entire trip) I found out this is apparently an attempt to “fix” that section of road. After removing much of the bedrock from the road surface dirt was brought in to replace it. I’m no roadway engineer but this doesn’t sound right to me.
Like all things the mud eventually ran it’s course and we found ourselves back on solid road surface. Onward we went with disc brakes scraping and tires slinging mud. Next stop? Bike wash! A nice stream crossing stood in front of us with swollen banks. What normally would have been an easy crossing was a little more challenging than it should have been with the high water. Since the weather was cool and expected to dip into the 30’s overnight approaching freezing we decided it was safer to unpack and cross than to risk wet gear at the hands of a hidden boulder just under the surface. But it did serve to remove the mud from the bikes! Right on!
We had traveled approximately 13 miles of our 18 for the day and figured camp couldn’t be too far off by way of the clock. Wrong.
The forest roads at this point became in many place un-rideable. We found ourselves on a hike-a-bike mission pushing packed bikes up 18-20% grades with road surfaces of larger than softball sized loose rock. In more than a few places the rocks grew to the size of ice chests squarely in the middle of the roadway. It is my understanding that over the last 2 winters this section of road has changed dramatically.
Then finally after a last push we achieved the ridge and a beautiful open meadow opened offering amazing 360 degree views both east and west. The lights of Harrisonburg shone to our east and mountains stretched to the west.
It was a chilly evening with temps eventually dropping down into the mid 30’s and the campfire was welcome. We were even treated to about 5 minutes of snow, yes snow in May, just prior to lights out. It was that round ball, dippin’ dots kinda snow.
There was not a soul in sight, that is until 1AM when a 4×4 showed up to camp overnight. Talk about disconcerting – after seeing two or three vehicles the entire day to have a truck rumble by your campsite in the middle of the night and set up camp. Honestly though? Too tired to care.
In the morning James came over and introduced himself to us just before the sun came up. He had graduated college the day before (Saturday), had a party on Sunday and left Fayetteville afterwards to land on the ridge in the middle of the night. He is currently 4×4 camping the country post graduation – check out his Instagram and follow his adventures.
There was no hurry to break camp the next morning. The campfire was restarted and no one wanted to leave the warmth. But we did knowing that the water pipe was ahead and we were all getting a little low on water.
Water – there’s not much of it on the ridge so be forewarned to pack some in for your trip if you decide to go. I was carrying about 4 liters and it was a cool trip temperature wise – on a hot day that would be pushing the limits. There are multiple stream crossings headed up to the ridge – fill up there even if you don’t need much. The water pipe is directly on the forest road (GPS cooordinates: 38.50125 -79.206833) and is marked by pink flags in the opposing trees. We chose not to bother filtering the water from the pipe – it was fine but you know your system better than anyone else so do what’s right for you.
As we moved down the ridge road surfaces continued to improve and we eventually found ourselves back on pavement and headed towards our start.
If I were to attempt this trip again I would modify the route some, possibly travel in a clockwise direction and most certainly ride a fatter tire – a fat bike or mid-fat would be good choices for these road surfaces.