Despite temperature in the mid-30s, the spring’s first cardinal was singing, snowdrops were blooming, and bodyguards and I were off again on another expedition to previously explored territory. A few cirrus clouds and contrails criss-crossed the sky, and the lower air was clear—exactly what I wanted for the day’s objective.
My friend KC and I walked the A.T. on Sinking Creek Mountain a few years ago, on a rainy day when the mountain crest was shrouded in clouds. We were unable to see the vistas from the open rock slopes, and on this day my goal was to photograph those views to make sketches for my trial guide. The forecast called for warming temperatures, with highs in the 60s.
Having recently climbed Sinking Creek Mountain from the Sinking Creek side with friends Su and Bruce, I planned to attack it from the Craigs Creek side this time. One does not need to make the long slog all the way up the A.T. from Craigs Creek Road; Forest Service Road 630 comes up from Caldwell Fields in Montgomery County and climbs the mountain’s flank for five horizontal miles, 900 feet elevation, ending just below the A.T. as it ascends the mountain. A steep but short unofficial trail connects the far end of the road to the A.T., saving the savvy hiker from having to plod up the entire way. Road 630 is 11.5 miles from Rte. 311 on Upper Craigs Creek Road, 1.9 miles past the Montgomery County line and right across from the Caldwell Fields sign. We headed up the road, which is open year-round and in good shape, passing the lower trailhead for the Sarver Trail 0.8 miles from Upper Craigs Creek Road.
An ample parking area, strewn with busted glass, shattered clay pigeons and the remnants of someone’s bonfire, greeted us at the road’s terminus. A steep excavation had been gouged in the uphill side since I was last there, and bodyguards and I had to skirt its boundary to climb up and look for the trail, which is unmarked. Jumbled, rusty-red rocks seemed to mark a place at the upper right of the scarp, and I thought I discerned an upwards trace. Up we went, but the possible trail soon petered out. We continued, and if you are thinking that I was breaking my “no bushwhacking solo” mandate, you’re right. But I knew exactly where I was and that we’d hit the A.T. soon no matter what since it climbs diagonally, lower right to upper left, across that part of the mountain. Still, bushwhacking uphill is tough going for the aging and creaky, and I quickly heated up in the bright sun. I took off my knit hat and stuffed it in my pack, and we thrashed on though clumps of mountain laurel, passing trees marked with flagging tape and diagonal lines of blue paint, maybe delineating the boundaries of firewood-cutting areas.
Then there was blue sky up ahead, and here was the A.T. I piled up a few rocks to make a cairn in case I needed to find that spot again, before turning left to follow the ascending trail. But just a short distance beyond was the upper end of the actual connector, marked by a couple of rock cairns started by KC and yours truly. I added a couple more rocks for good measure. We were still some distance below the crest of the mountain, and the trail climbs gently and contours along. But that doesn’t mean it was easy walking; it crosses fields of large tilted rocks that have slid down from the caprock, over which I had to scramble and pick my way carefully. Through the trees to our left, Brush Mountain and ridges beyond were visible. We paused on a little spur to get a drink and snack, and I checked my GPS; we were 4.8 miles from the place I’d previously marked, where the trail descends into Sinking Creek Valley. That would put us less than 3½ miles from the Sarver Trail, which I hoped to reach. Beyond, the trail became a rocky slot through catbriers and laurel, then an indistinct trace with few blazes across open rocks.
A sign on the mountain crest marks the Eastern Continental Divide: 405 miles to the Atlantic Ocean, 1920 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The walking became easier for a little way. I crawled under a barber-chaired tree that had broken off and split several feet up. The trail trended upwards slightly, skirting the tilted caprock to our right; to the left, the panorama of Brush Mountain was spread out, with the highest knobs of Paris Mountain behind, then Ft. Lewis and Poor Mountains with their radio towers, and finally the distant Peaks of Otter and McAfee’s Knob. And, CRAPOLA! I’d left my GPS back on the log where we took a break. Well, unless someone else should happen by, it should still be there when we returned. A crack in the caprock funneled a cool blast of air to us as we passed. We descended though a little notch, took another break, then went on past thickets of catbriers, over soft sand weathered out of the rocks. Then the trail climbed again. Scenic easement signs on trees to the right indicated we were on, or adjacent to, private property. We got no good vistas into Sinking Creek Valley, but I could see that we were across from the cell tower on the flank of Johns Creek Mountain and a field that goes all the way to that mountain’s crest. Below us on the right, house-sized boulders had split off the caprock and slid down.
We emerged onto another open shield of caprock, the trail crossing the rock itself, and the rocks, tilted at a nearly 45° angle, were hazardous walking. I picked my way carefully, and Addie slid down some distance, her toenails scritching on the sandstone. But from here, we could see all the way to Blacksburg, and I took care to photograph it all. I found a place in the shade of a rock to take a break, but where was Addie, who didn’t come running at my call of “water!”? She was way ahead, but as soon as I started calling her, Trey dashed in front to lead me to her. Past another notch, I consulted my map and guessed we were two miles from the Sarver Trail. After improving briefly, the trail crossed another rock shield, then went to the other (right) side of the crest, between two high rocks. I had to crawl under another tree. The crest broadened, the trail leveled out, and I picked up my pace. There, on the flank of Johns Creek Mountain, was the house of Ernie, someone I know slightly, just outside Simmonsville. There was an A.T. marker embedded in the trail. A raven croaked overhead in the unblemished blue sky, a small dusky butterfly flew up ahead of us, and it was almost 2 PM. I decided to walk to the next knob and turn around, even if we hadn’t reached the Sarver Trail.
The next knob was rugged and catbrier-clad, and we sat down at its top for rest, water and snack. I peeled the skin off my tangerine and hung it on a trailside tree, a probable act of littering. From this spot, McAfee’s knob was in line with the rightmost Peak of Otter. We retraced our steps through the catbrier thickets and across the rock slopes, where I pointed my feet uphill and sidled across crabwise. If I slipped while facing cross-slope, I’d land on my hip, a very bad bone to break at any time. Two more little butterflies swirled in an apparent courtship dance, despite the earliness of the season. Two boulders standing alone on our right had suggestive shapes; I dubbed one of them Howling Dog Rock and the other Laughing Man Rock. They only look like those things from the southwest. Could the little bodyguards climb that steep rock with few footholds? I paused to make sure they didn’t need help, but they scrambled right up. Short-legged Addie may not have much reach, but she has lots of leverage. And both bodyguards have been up the challenging trail to Dragon’s Tooth more than once.
There was a raven again, soaring along the ridge. I collected a little sand for a possible local geology class. Low, dusty-purple bramble canes stood on the slope above. It was just after 3:30 when we reached the Continental Divide sign and headed down. There was my GPS, still where I left it. The long shadows of trees stretched ahead of us, and we found the two cairns with no trouble.
The connector trail goes pretty much straight down. I took my time and deployed my trekking pole descending the steep slope, to spare my knees. I can hereby report that I didn’t miss my knee brace, which I’d forgotten to put on; what the knee needs is that pole. As Old Blue came into view, I took careful note of where the trail comes out, so I can describe it in my guide. It emerges more or less at the center of the excavation and is plainly visible to anyone patient enough to work their way across the top of it. Scattered deer bones, spine and ribs, lie nearby. We didn’t reach the Sarver Trail, but I was pleased to have gotten some good photographs to base view sketches on.