It was another cold January day.
A broken layer of stratocumulus clouds was cruising by at highway speed, temperatures were in the high 20s and the ground-level wind was gusting to 35mph according to the Beaufort scale (whole trees in motion). A few gleams of light turned the clouds and ridges peach-colored as the sun came over Sinking Creek Mountain; squalls of graupel dimmed the view intermittently and scattered white grains on the deck.
Despite the unpromising weather, Nan and I planned to take our bodyguards to explore Caldwell Mountain, just over the line in Botetourt County (the Craig County map is in error; Caldwell Mountain is not the one the county line runs along but the one to its right/east). I suited up in wool shirt and insulated boots and made sure my stupid hat with earflaps was in my pack. As Nan’s car came up the driveway, I stuffed the bodyguards into their coats and found that Trey’s pack straps would just barely reach around her coat-padded girth.
After brief stops in New Castle, we were off to Caldwell Mountain Road, which runs eastward into Botetourt County. This area is unfamiliar to me, and I noted a lot of promising side roads to explore. Nan took us up to the notch between Price Mountain and the ridge that forms the county line and is a continuation of Broad Run Mountain to the southwest. At this point, the county line forms a corner, leaves the ridge and heads northeast for Fork Mountain and a three-way junction with the Allegheny line.
We were at Price Mountain Trail, not Caldwell Mountain Trail, but no matter; this was a recon expedition to look for roads and trails. We saddled up; I put on my backpack and Nan had on her many-pocketed vest, and we headed up. The one disadvantage of the change in destination was that we had hoped to walk in a valley, sheltered from the wind and instead were on the mountain crest subjected to its full force—a major disadvantage, because the wind was just plain awful. As we climbed the well-trodden trail, the wind roared overhead and penetrated all the gaps in our clothing, while the trees swayed above us. At a temperature of 30°, wind velocity of 35mph results in wind chill equivalent to 14°, so it’s no wonder the windward sides of our faces quickly became numb.
To our right, as we went up, there was nothing but a broad valley between us and the dim Blue Ridge, with Peaks of Otter looming beyond, closer than I’d ever previously seen them. To the left, northwest, were Little Mountain NE, then Bald Mountain, barely discernable though the flurries against the flank of Potts Mountain, which formed the horizon. I’ve walked on all those mountains before. The trail leveled out for a short distance before ascending again, and we took shelter on the windward side of a large rock to consult the map. My cold-stiffened fingers, fumbling in gloves, made only brief, cryptic remarks in my little notebook.
At the top of the next climb, we looked back to see the end of Caldwell Mountain standing high, and beyond it the knobbly length of North Mountain, which I have walked the entire length of. Over a couple more knobs we reached the top, and Nan remarked that the chestnut oaks are typical of dry conditions. Stunted Virginia pines, another species tolerant of deficient moisture, stood among the oaks. We descended into a sharp notch and spotted a woodpecker, but it was to far away to identify. We paused to get a drink, and I replaced my knit hat with my stupid hat, which is much more wind-resistant.
My torso, heated by the exertion of climbing, felt overly warm, while the left side of my face was an insensate block of ice. I lost count of the number of knobs we slogged over, fighting the wind; more than the map shows, for a bump too low to generate map contours can still register as a knob to someone on foot. Frost heave had formed little dirt-topped ice columns that crunched underfoot. We came in sight of the southwest end of Switzer Mountain to our right. Behind us, the northwest sides of the spur ridges of Caldwell Mountain were clad in dark pines.
Ah! Here was a trail junction with sign post, the top of it rotten but the lower parts readable. It was 1.5 miles to Rte. 606 (Caldwell Mountain Road) back the way we’d come; 6 miles farther on the mountain crest would take us to Forest Service Road 184; a left turn heading down the mountain would take us to Sulphur Springs and also to 606, three miles to Sulphur Springs and four to 606. Had we really walked only 1.5 miles?? It sure seemed a lot farther than that, but it must have been because of the miserable conditions. When we got back to the road, I confirmed the distance with my GPS. We decided that we didn’t want to walk down the mountain; we weren’t sure where we’d end up and didn’t want to have to walk back up again.
So, we continued out the crest a little farther, through stands of mountain laurels underlain by moss. Nan drew my attention to a pile of bear poop, but decided that it was old enough that the bear would no longer be nearby. We made the next knob we came to our turnaround point and found a sheltered spot to eat our lunches. By the time we were done, I’d started to feel chilly and was eager to get moving again. We didn’t dawdle on the way back, but walked along briskly and were soon back at the road, verifying yet again that the distance wasn’t all that far. Now my left cheek could regain circulation while my right one was numb. I wrapped a short scarf around my face to diminish the effect, something I try to avoid doing because the scarf directs my breath upwards and fogs my glasses.
We reached the last descent, I took out my trekking pole, and my knee behaved itself on the way down. When we got to Nan’s car, she pointed out another trail, so I stowed the bodyguards in the car and went to look at the sign while she fumbled with her GPS. This sign was in better shape: Sulphur Ridge Loop, one mile to Sulphur Spring and four miles to Price Mountain Trail. So, if we had gone down the mountain, we would have ended up back at the car, but neither of us were up for the additional distance in the bitter cold. We loaded up, and Nan cranked up the heater. Three miles round-trip was a pretty minimal distance for us, but that trek showed us several objectives to aim for on a nicer day. Nan took a side detour to check out the road to and past the Baptist Camp on Craig—it follows Patterson and Little Patterson Creeks out past the end of Price Mountain.
Back at home, I did some map work and determined that the Sulphur Ridge Loop goes down a side ridge from Price Mountain to Sulphur Ridge, which runs parallel to the mountain. The trail follows Sulphur Ridge southwest, goes down to Sulphur Springs on Caldwell Mountain Road (606), then climbs the mountain to the notch where we started. Price Mountain Trail follows the mountain crest to the road we explored, which must be F.S. 184. We are in no danger of running out of new trails any time soon.