This past weekend, MS and I headed back out to the GWNF to complete the route we had originally planned to do on the same weekend as the SM100. I had estimated the route to be about 30 miles but, by comparison, I had also expected it to be “easier” than the Elliot Knob fire tower route. One of my main goals of this route was to check out the new work on the Wild Oak (FS 716) trail up to Dowell’s Draft (FS 650).
We pedaled out of the Braley Pond Day Use area at 8:37 AM Saturday and headed up FR95 to the Wild Oak trailhead. It was cool with heavy overcast, drizzle, and everything was wet. Back home, it was a no-ride day, but as we would soon be reminded the mountains are a great alternative when it’s a little wet out.
The new route up Wild Oak to Dowell’s Draft is amazing. I’ve only climbed up to Dowell’s Draft one time before, and it was on the old trail that went straight up the fall line. It was grueling and, unless you are a glutton for punishment, not a whole lot of fun.
After a few miles of beautiful, flowy, bench cut climbing, we arrived at the intersection of the old Wild Oak trail and the Betsy trail. Turns out the old Wild Oak trail at that point is the “death drop” that was the final push to the Dowell’s summit the last time we did this. Oh, and it’s also a section that MS wanted to descend last time and for which he has been laying on the guilt trip for a couple of years.
Well, he finally got to cross it off his list. While I chilled out near the bottom, he pushed up and up and up and then descended the steep and gnarly terrain with a steep and gnarly grin on his face. Now, can we move on?
(it’s steeper than it looks – and that’s not the steep part)
After the much needed diversion, we took the half-mile, half-track called Betsy trail (aka Magic Moss) up to the top of Dowell’s Draft and hung a left. New trail work climbed up for another mile or two, but it was more sweet bench cut trail with occasional rock work thrown in for good measure. As we climbed, I could hardly wait to descend it, but I would have to.
The new trail fizzled out and we transitioned to the old school singletrack, which descended softly toward the Hankey Mountain trail (425). It leveled off in dense forest socked in with fog which reduced visibility and created an eerily beautiful setting.
We exited into open fields and the singletrack soon turned into fire road. While fire road sections are usually greeted with disdain (as this was), we would soon find ourselves descending some of the most fun fire road. Ever! Of course, we’d pay for it later.
We descended Hankey Mountain Trail to Lookout Mountain. The beginning of Lookout Mountain is more fire road before turning to singletrack and includes some climbing, but once things get going it is an absolute blast of undulating rocky singletrack with interesting rock features followed by ridgeline riding and ending with an aggressive rocky descent down to the North River. Wow, that was a long sentence.
The next several miles are, unfortunately, on paved road as we followed FR95 past Todd Lake and around to Leading Ridge Rd. The road turns to gravel here has you head toward the Staunton Dam. Just passed the North River Campground is the Hankey Mountain Trail, which is a fire road climb back up to the Lookout Mountain trailhead where we hung a right and started backtracking toward Dowells Draft.
At this point, we were about 30 miles in and the climbing required on the road/fire road section had taken its toll. And we weren’t done. Hankey Mountain trail from Lookout to Dowells is a grind, and we found ourselves off the bikes pushing.
Getting to the open fields at the top was another small achievement and good for morale. We re-entered the dark forest, and took a refueling break before making the short-climb up to the reconnect with the new trail work above Dowells. Upon making that left-hand turn and seeing the new soil brought huge smiles with the promise of several miles of downhill goodness.
The descent of the new work was as awesome as expected and in just a blur we were at the top of Dowells, where we took out last (planned) break of the day. The sun was finally out and the beers were still kind of cold. It was all good.
The beginning of the Dowells descent was a rip-roaring good time, but just a minute or two in I heard a noise from behind me. Coming to a stop and looking back I saw nothing. I heard nothing. Oh no, MS is down!
Hustling back up the trail I was relieved to find that it was only a flat. Considering this was the first mechanical of any sort in two outings totaling about 60 miles of rocky, backcountry trail, I’d say we’ve been pretty lucky. After a “quick” change, we surfed down the remainder of Dowell’s.
At 36 miles, my estimate of 30 was on the low side, but I think my estimate that it was not as grueling as the Elliot Knob route was accurate. That’s not to say we didn’t have our moments. Unless you are an SM100 type, this route is pretty aggressive but is definitely doable. All in, it was a 9 hour route. I’d do it again!
Braley Pond >> FR95 >> Wild Oak Trail >> Betsy Trail (aka Magic Moss) >> Hankey Mountain Trail >> Lookout Mountain >> FR95 >> Leading Ridge Rd >> Hankey Mountain Trail >> Dowells Draft >> Braley Pond.
Min Elevation: 1,616
Max Elevation: 3,379
Elevation Gain: 5,220
Mileage: approximately 36 miles
Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.