Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jefferson National Forest: Guest River Gorge (Blog Hike #380)

Trail: Guest River Gorge Trail
Hike Location: Jefferson National Forest, Guest River Gorge
Geographic Location: south of CoeburnVA (36.92334, -82.45166)
Length: (varies)
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: June 2012
Overview: A gravel bike trail beside the cascading Guest River.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 58A and SR 72 in Coeburn, take SR 72 south 2.3 miles to the signed entrance for Guest River Gorge on the left.  Turn left and proceed 2 miles downhill to the blacktop parking lot at the trailhead for the Guest River Gorge Trail.

The hike: Located in the extreme eastern edge of Jefferson National Forest’s Clinch River Ranger District, the Guest River Gorge Trail constitutes one of many successful Virginia Rails-to-Trails projects.  The railroad first came through the gorge in the early 1920’s when commercially exploitable coal and saltpeter found in the region required quick transport to market.  Norfolk-Southern operated the railroad as a freight line until, in 1988, they abandoned the track and donated the land to the national forest.  Construction on the rail-trail soon began, and the trail was officially dedicated in 1994.
            Today the fine packed-gravel trail makes an excellent and scenic destination for both hikers and bicyclists.  In fact, I could only think of one downside to hiking at Guest River Gorge: the southern terminus of the trail lies at an active railroad line and has no vehicle access.  Thus, you will have to hike this trail as an out-and-back.  Since the entire 5.8 miles is a little too long for a comfortable one day out-and-back, you will have to decide where to turn around.  The most interesting features are found within the first 0.5 miles.  The first 3.8 miles are described in detail here.
Trailhead for Guest River Gorge Trail
            Walk down the asphalt path to reach the old railroad grade, then turn right to head for the gorge.  The gravel path is several yards wide, and just off the shoulder of the path lies a dense veil of greenery that includes some hemlock and maple trees.  For most of the hike the high-volume fast-flowing Guest River can be heard but not seen; for now it lies to the left.
            At 0.3 miles, you pass a small wet-weather waterfall to the right just as the Swede Tunnel, an old railroad tunnel, comes into view.  The inscription states that this concrete tunnel was constructed in 1922, and dripping water has formed some stalactites in the tunnel’s ceiling.  The tunnel is not lighted, and the trail does go through the tunnel.  You do not need to worry about stumbling due to the excellent trail surface, but you should bring a flashlight if you are scared of the dark.
Entering Swede Tunnel
            At 0.4 miles, the trail crosses Guest River on a wooden bridge built on the old railroad bridge supports.  This bridge will be your only chance to get a good view of the river, so don’t miss it on either the out or back portion of this hike.  Now on the east side of the river, the trail meanders left and right, descending at an almost imperceptible grade all of the time.  Many benches placed at roughly 0.2 mile intervals allow the opportunity to rest if needed.
Guest River, as viewed from footbridge
            Just past the 1 mile marker, the trail crosses a tributary of Guest River that produces its own pleasant cascading sound.  Mile markers on this trail consist of white circular signs mounted on metal posts.  The vertical rock walls of the gorge rise to the left of the trail, sometimes through the trees and sometimes right beside the trail. Near the 2 mile marker you reach a point where the river’s cascading sound echoes off of the rock wall.
Waterfall at picnic area
At 2.5 miles, you reach a picnic table on the left side of the trail.  Even if you do not plan to have a snack, you should stop here to view the small waterfall behind the picnic table.  At 3.8 miles, you reach another waterfall to the left of the trail.  A bench to the right of the trail gives a perfect viewpoint of the waterfall.  This waterfall makes a nice place to turn around, and that is exactly what I did.  The trail continues another 2 miles to reach the Clinch River, but remember that there is no vehicle access to the southern end of the trail.  Thus, at some point you will have to turn around and retrace your steps slightly uphill all of the way back to complete the hike.
Waterfall at 3.8 miles

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