by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
Once the winter winds arrive and rid the trees of their leaves, hiking season has officially changed. This does not mean the time has arrived to put your boots away for the season. It means familiar trails get a makeover of sorts and almost every mountainside trail now features winter vistas. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on familiar trails that improve with the arrival of winter.
The Wintergreen trail system offers some lovely options for winter vistas. My favorite winter improved trail is the Devils Knob Trail. This trail is the highest elevation trailhead at Wintergreen and has multiple outcrops that become prominent without foliage. This trail can be combined with either White Oak Trail or Pond Hollow Trail to increase your vista count. Plan accordingly if you continue downhill on White Oak or Pond Hollow or you will have a long uphill walk back to your vehicle. This trail is difficult and becomes even trickier when wet so take precautions. Another winter favorite of mine is the Blackrock/Brimstone “loop”. I like to start this hike by parking at the Pedlars Edge Access trailhead. Descend the access trail and proceed up the Blackrock Trail at the trail intersection. Follow the trail as it rollercoasters over the rocks along these difficult trails. The effort is rewarded with constant views into the Rockfish Valley. After a magnificent vista on Brimstone, you will shortly enter a mt. laurel thicket which leads you to the Fortune’s Ridge Access. Take a right onto the yellow blazed portion of this trail and it brings you to Blackrock Drive. Take a right and walk a short distance down Blackrock Drive to your vehicle. This trail is very difficult but you are handsomely rewarded for your time and effort.
A great local option for winter hike is the White Rock Falls/Slacks Trail loop. This hike is accessed off the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can park at either the White Rock Gap (MM 18.5) or Slacks Overlook parking area (MM 19.9). I like to descend on the yellow blazed White Rock Falls trail from either parking area. This trail will feature waterfalls and winter vistas. Follow this across the Blue Ridge Parkway and connect with the blue blazed Slacks Trail. This portion of the Slacks Trail has great winter views and will lead you back to your car.
The trail I believe improves the most in the winter is Fortune’s Cove Preserve. This property, owned by The Nature Conservancy, has good views during full foliage but is spectacular when the leaves hit the ground. To get to the trailhead use Rt. 651 off of Rt. 29 in Lovingston. The hike features two loops, the inner and the outer loops. I prefer the outer loop which is more difficult but gets the hiker to much higher elevations thus providing almost constant viewsheds as you walk. I suggest going counterclockwise around the loop but be prepared to climb quickly. Once you near the northern portion of the trail you will get wonderful views of The Priest, Three Ridges and Wintergreen. Make sure to spend a bit of time at the American chestnut experimental plantation adjacent to the parking area. Dogs are not permitted in the preserve.
Do not be daunted by cold weather and bleak forests but instead seek the opportunities that the winter brings. Winter hiking is bug free, less crowded and best of all, offers unique vistas not available for large portions of the year. Get out and find your winter vista!