You may not know this about me, but I am a list guy. I make lists at home and at work in an attempt to maintain some sense of organization. Now that you know that, it won’t surprise you that I also have a list of trails and trail systems that I want to ride.
One of the trails on my list is known as the Southern Traverse, which is the southern end of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail (FS Trail 447, Trails Illustrated Map #791) The Southern Traverse was also designated as an IMBA Epic trail, although it has recently been re-classified as a Hall of Fame Epic due to changes in their definition. Regardless of what IMBA calls it, I’ve wanted to ride it for quite some time.
MS and I camped at Todd Lake, a great base camp from which to enjoy tons of trails and fire road routes in the National Forest. This was the last weekend the camping area would be open prior to closing for the winter. Braley Pond is much closer to the ST, but we have grown quite fond of Todd Lake.
All of my research indicated the most popular way to access the Southern Traverse was via Benson Run Rd. (173) off of Route 629.
It should be noted that Benson Run Rd accesses the National Forest through private property. When approaching on 629 from the north, Benson Run Rd. is on the right and very easy to miss. If you make it to Deerfield, you have gone too far. The good news is that Benson Run Rd. is on GPS, so if you like a little less adventure in your adventure, fire up the Garmin and it should take you right to it.
Otherwise, be on the lookout for a small sign indicating “173” on side of the road. As you pull onto the road, there is a larger sign noting that you are entering private property and instructing you to stay on the road until you enter National Forest property.
The drive through the private property is short, but kind of scenic with creek crossings, cows grazing, and the mountains straight ahead. At the Y, stay left and go through the gate. Be sure to close it behind you. Remember, you are a guest. Once you are through the gate though, you are in National Forest territory and can get all crazy if you choose. A short ways up the road on the left is a parking area.
From the parking area, it is about a 4-mile climb to the trailhead. The Shenandoah Mountain Trail does intersect the road, so to head south you will go left on the trail. There is a trail sign that should help, and if you miss both the trail and the sign, there is another large sign on the left indicating you are leaving Augusta County and entering Highland County. If you miss all that, you are on your own.
There is room up at the trailhead for a couple of vehicles, so if you’d prefer the gravel grind to be at the end of the loop, you can park there.
The beginning of the trail is double track, but after passing through a clearing it turns to singletrack that quickly becomes steep and narrow. During one misstep, I grabbed for my rear brake only to realize it didn’t feel like I had any rear brake. As it turned out, I did have a little bit of braking power back there, but not near as much as one would like for a trail that promises some screaming descents. Oh well, we’ve come this far, right?
After the initial steep climb we were treated to mile after mile of leaf covered singletrack, bench cut ascents and descents, ridgeline sections, and evidence all around that Autumn was in full effect, especially at the higher elevations.
I’ve read reports of thick thorns and stinging nettles along the trail, but we didn’t encounter too much of that. It probably depends on the time of year you go. There were several sections that were a little overgrown, but that is all part of the backcountry charm if you ask me.
About 4.5 miles in at the bottom of a nice downhill run, the trail intersects Nelson Draft Trail (FS 393). There was a sign on the right, but I was hard pressed to find the trail, so you don’t need to worry about accidentally taking a wrong turn.
I believe we stopped about half-way through our actual trail mileage for lunch. It was quite cool and even started to drizzle a bit on us. We layered up while we sat, but didn’t stay long. Cool temps, potential rain, not knowing what lies ahead, and the idea of ending our ride in the dark kept us moving right along.
The only other “intersection” to worry about is where you have the choice to go up and to the left to link up with Jerkemtight Rd., which takes you down to 629 or stay on the trail to the right. The map and other descriptions indicates that you can access Marshall Draft Trail (FS 547) from there as well, but I didn’t see that one either. The map makes it look like they might run together for a bit before Marshall Draft peels off to the north.
There are no trail signs that I could see, but the Southern Traverse is blazed yellow downhill to the right and, for us anyway, was the obvious choice. Unless you have a real urgent need to get back to civilization, I highly recommend you go right. Civilization is way overrated.
While there were scatterings of rock along the entire length of the trail, the 2nd third of the trail probably had the most concentration of rocky sections. And this rock was loose, slippery, and narrow.
Based on GPS readings, we finally realized we were getting close to the cherry on top of the Southern Traverse pie: an 1100 foot descent down to Scotchtown Draft Rd (SR 627). We started dropping some steep, burly trail which was made even more interesting with limited rear braking power. In short time though, we ended up climbing again. What the? No worries, it was short lived and then the bottom dropped out for good. My goodness, what a romp!
The Ride Back
As awesome as the trail and the final descent were, it was bittersweet to pop out onto Route 627, which you can take left (south) to 629 and take another left. The road ride back wasn’t terrible as far as road rides go, I guess. At least the locals slowed down when they passed us (sarcasm). I guess the day had caught up with me though because I was pooped, and my left knee was starting to give me fits. By the time we got back to the truck, I was done. But it was a great ride and I would do it all over again.
We took about 7 hours to do the 36 mile loop. Not breaking any speed records I am sure. Next time, I would actually allow more time in order to explore and enjoy the surroundings more. I will also take an extra set of brake pads. My verdict: get out there an do it.