Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jefferson National Forest: Hanging Rock Recreation Area (Blog Hike #379)

Trail: Little Stony National Recreation Trail
Hike Location: Jefferson National Forest, Hanging Rock Recreation Area
Geographic Location: south of CoeburnVA (36.86135, -82.44612)
Length: 5.2 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2012
Overview: A creekside out-and-back to multiple high-volume waterfalls.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 58A and SR 72 in Coeburn, take winding SR 72 south 9 miles to the signed entrance to Hanging Rock Recreation Area.  You reach this entrance just as the road makes a sharp switchback to the left.  Take a very soft right to enter the area, and park in the only blacktop parking area at the end of the entrance road.

The hike: Located geologically on the Hunters Valley Fault, Hanging Rock Recreation Area derives its name from the large rock outcrop near the parking area created by tectonic movement along this fault.  The area is available for day-use only, but the 18 picnic units and 1 group shelter provide great locations for an afternoon outing.  The area’s location on a winding rural road far away from any population center ensures a fair amount of serenity and solitude.
            The recreation area is also the eastern terminus of the Little Stony National Recreation Trail.  The trail extends a total of 19.2 miles to High Knob Recreation Area located just south of Norton, but only the first 2.6 miles of the national recreation trail are described here.  This first section is the most popular part of the trail because it leads to several excellent waterfalls and offers only a small amount of difficulty.
Eastern trailhead-Little Stony National Recreation Trail
Begin at the rear of the parking area where a brown metal sign gives distances to points near and far.  The trail, marked with yellow paint blazes, heads into the dark, mature forest.  Some hemlock trees grow near the creek, but maple and beech trees comprise the majority of the forest.  The cascading Little Stony Creek to your left will be your pleasant companion for nearly the entire hike.
At 0.1 miles, the trail drops to creek level and passes through an area with several boulders and downed trees.  Although most of this trail ascends at a gentle rate on an abandoned railroad grade, the trail definitely has a wilder side too.  Parts of the railroad grade have been washed out, creating rocky areas with lots of downed trees such as this one.  The preferred route is usually clear, so careful stepping and ducking should get you through these areas without incident.
Hiking along the creek
            At 0.5 miles, you cross the creek for the first time on a fine wooden footbridge.  These footbridges give you excellent views of the cascading stream without getting wet feet or sore knees (from boulder scrambling).  Now on the west side of the creek, you soon cross another washout area.  In this area, the trail briefly treads a narrow course with a short vertical drop-off down to the creek on the right.
Past the washout, an easy section of trail on an intact portion of the railroad grade follows.  Poison ivy grows in abundance along most of this trail, but most of it can be avoided if you look for it.  At 1.4 miles, you cross the second bridge over Little Stony Creek just before passing another washout area, this one with several downed trees lying across the trail.
Little Stony Creek, as viewed from a footbridge
At 1.8 miles, you cross a small side stream without the aid of a bridge.  This crossing must be made directly above a small waterfall, so take sure steps in the stream here.  On the bright side, another small waterfall can be seen to the right just upstream from this crossing.
2 miles into the hike, you reach the worst washout area on the trail.  The trail gets around the area using a steep rocky ascent and descent, but you will have to walk over a small boulder field as part of the route.  Again, step carefully on the rocks to avoid falls and injuries.
Climbing around the washout
Past the washout, the trail reverts to its easy railroad grade character and crosses a large tributary on a third footbridge.  Soon after this footbridge, the waterfall show begins.  The first couple of waterfalls are large cascades over small layers of rock, but at 2.6 miles you reach the first major waterfall.  At about 25 feet high, this waterfall may be the best one on this hike.  The large creek provides plenty of water, and several rock ledges provide plenty of splashing before the waters gather in a large plunge pool to resume their downhill course.  A wooden overlook provides the perfect vantage point to view this waterfall.
Cascade in Little Stony Creek
First major waterfall
From the overlook, climbing a few wooden steps and continuing upstream will quickly lead to two other waterfalls.  These waterfalls are ledge-type waterfalls, and although they are not as high as the first one, they still have large plunge pools.  At 2.9 miles, the trail comes out at a small parking area at the end of a long, narrow gravel road.  Unless you have a second car stationed here, you will need to retrace your steps back downhill along Stony Creek to the Hanging Rock Recreation Area to complete the hike.

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