It was 19.5° as the sun rose in a clear sky and the dogs barked at two deer at the bottom of our property. I’d planned to check out Enterprise Road, a Forest Service road that climbs the end of Sinking Creek Mountain from Rte. 311, but it was such a clear day that I decided instead to return to areas I’d previously explored north of Fenwick Mines.
It had been a murky day when I discovered the fabulous panorama from the unnamed rocky hill, and I wanted to get good photographs to make panorama sketches for additions to my trail guide. The drive to Fenwick Mines wasn’t far and the walk wouldn’t be long, so I waited for it to warm up some before heading out.
The Fenwick Mines parking lot was empty, and bodyguards and I dismounted and started up the Forest Service road that connects Fenwick Mines to Mill Creek Forest Service road. The gate was closed, but some vehicle with aggressive-treaded tires had made two passes along the road recently, leaving deep tracks in the soft sand. Deer had left prints of their own, and a lone human and large dog had also followed the road, under the scrubby Virginia pines. Signs tacked to trees listed the rules for cutting firewood in the National Forest. It’s only a couple of tenths of a mile to the Forest Service road, 5038, that heads towards Bald Mountain and passes the hill we were going to climb. A gate and berm were no barrier to the foot traveler, and we turned left and started to climb a little, passing clumps of galax sporting their winter maroon color and disturbed ground where moles had tunneled. A black dog with orange collar ran across the road far ahead, but we saw no person and no human tracks. Muddy spots were slick; I skidded several times.
The well-traveled part of Road 5038 ends where it circles an island of trees, but a rougher track, with beaten-down grass between its ruts, leads on. It peters out, as I already knew, before reaching the base of Bald Mountain, passing Hill 5038 (as I’m calling it for convenience) as it goes. The road ascended gently, with Hill 5038 ahead, its near side thinly clad with burnt and living trees. A mourning dove sprang up and flew off, wings whistling. The road descends to round the nose of the hill, but we went up from its highest point, threading our way through low laurels and blueberries, past fallen, decaying, burnt logs and brush. A faraway robin called, bip, bip, as we slogged over rounded gray sandstone chunks ranging from the size of your head downwards and windrows of big yellow acorns, all underlain by sand weathered out of the rocks. “British soldier” lichens with their scarlet tips formed small clumps underfoot, and in places the soil was black with charcoal. Several pieces of charred wood had been arranged in an “X”, obviously by human hands. Numerous new saplings, or maybe root sprouts from surviving trees, stood everywhere. This hill will not be open for long; a few more years and it will be an impenetrable thicket of new growth.
The slope diminished, and we headed for a large pine that marks the highest point, before the hill, which is actually a spur of Bald Mountain, climbs again. Above a line of large boulders, we reached the spot, and there was the panorama of mountains, from right to left: Bald, Nutters, Little SW (the one above New Castle), Johns Creek, Aps Knob, Sinking Creek, Cove, North, Lick, Broad Run, Caldwell and Little NE. There was New Castle between Aps Knob and the end of Sinking Creek Mountain; roofs of the picnic shelters at Fenwick Mines; Mill Creek Road; and 5038. I was happy to get a good set of photographs, but we didn’t linger on the hill; the wind was cold, and we made our way back down as expediently as I could manage. It was hard to deploy my trekking pole in the low brush, and I picked my way carefully. It’s really more dangerous to fall going downhill than going up—you fall farther, and it’s harder to catch yourself. I noted the cross-beds, layers of accumulation of the original sand, in the boulders as we passed them. They’re the remains of ancient ripples.
The descent took us out of the worst of the wind, and I found a sheltered spot in the lee of a tree in the road circle for us to take a break and drink some water, while I ate some of my lunch. The sun was pleasantly warm. Then we went on down, and I was reminded again that the mud was slick. Chickadee and jay calls greeted us as we reached the “main” road and turned left to head towards Mill Creek Road. We came into earshot of Mill Creek, gurgling over rocks. A log barrier with narrow opening, and a series of berms prevent vehicles from driving from Fenwick Mines to Mill Creek Road—or rather, they prevent most vehicles. Whoever had left the tracks was driving an ATV, and he’d gone right through the opening, over and around the berms, and on up to Mill Creek Road.
To cross Mill Creek, one must wade, or inch across a slippery log. I chose the latter, rolled up my pants cuffs, took out my pole to help me balance, and got across without getting my feet wet. Beyond, I found the forgotten T-shirt I’d draped over a bush on my previous visit, still unclaimed. At Mill Creek Road, I found the gate to F.S. Road 50621, which climbs Little Mountain NE, open. ATV Guy had gone up, and we did too. There was a controlled burn up there a few weeks ago, and I wanted to see the result. I GPS’d the location, and we began to climb. The fire had come right down to Mill Creek Road at the intersection with 50621, and charred ground was to our left as we went up. The mountain is not very high, but it’s highest in the middle and lower at the ends, so even after we reached its spine, we continued to ascend at a lesser gradient. Scorched pine saplings with brown needles stood among laurels with shriveled leaves, but green shoots were emerging from tufts of blackened grass. We passed a sooty field full of tender green blades, then a large stand of sumacs with drooping seed-heads. We were back in the wind again. A pair of pileated woodpeckers called as they winged their way across to our left. The flames must have been high; needles on large pines had been killed 15-20 feet up. More burnt fields followed, then a pair of big open-grown oaks, unharmed, for they were in the unburned tracts to the right. Turkeys had left tracks in the mud.
Up and up we went, in stages: first a modest climb, then a level stretch or slight descent; then another climb, followed by another break, and repeat. Wind hissed in the pines, but the sun was toasty. Nuthatches snarked, the road steepened a bit, and the rocks in and around it were larger. The GPS told me we were 1.5 miles straight-line distance from Mill Creek Road, when we reached the spot where I met the nice Navajo gentleman from Four Corners who was part of a team clearing fire lines last fall. There is a panorama from this place too, so I photographed it: Bald Mountain, with a little of Potts showing in its saddle; Potts again; Sevenmile, Johns Creek, Aps Knob, Sinking Creek, and far away to the left, maybe Brush Mountain. The burn ended here and did the road? I’d asked the guy from Four Corners what the rest of the mountain was like, and what he’d said didn’t sound very encouraging, and my map shows the road ending. But there were two rough, recently bulldozed tracks leading onwards, one down to the left and the other appearing to continue along the mountain’s crest. ATV Guy had gone that way, and so did we.
Now we were genuinely on the crest of the mountain; the road behind us had skirted it. It was possible to see North, or maybe Caldwell, Mountain through the trees to our right. The top of the mountain is broad, with widely spaced trees and only scattered mountain laurels growing underneath. Now we were descending, having reached the highest part of Little Mountain NE; the far end of Bald Mountain and its connection to Rich Patch Mountains were ahead. We reached a marked tree: “DP 25” in red spray paint. The GPS said we were 2.2 miles from Mill Creek Road, going down steady through low-crowned, gnarly oaks underlain by Lycopodium. Mindful that we would have to walk back up, I made 2.6 miles our turnaround point and GPS’d it.
The lower part or our re-ascent was so gentle a climb that I didn’t need to stop to rest. Then the gradient increased, and I found the rocks underfoot a hazard to my ankles. Sandstone slabs in the road had ancient ripples, brought into relief by the lowering sun. The wind came up, or maybe we walked up into it, as clouds began to move in. It took us about half an hour to walk back up, and then we were on our way down again, the edges of the burn lapping at the road like a black tide. Lively chickadees scolded from the trees and we got below the worst of the wind, over gravel and cobbles that rolled underfoot. Swaying trees let out a ghostly creak. Glimpses through the trees showed the dim hump of Sevenmile Mountain between Johns Creek and Potts Mountains, and the boulders on Hill 5038 shining in the sun. The wind was still unpleasant.
I got all the way down to Mill Creek Road without having to deploy my trekking pole. A pileated woodpecker applauded my effort. When I reached the t-shirt I draped it over my pack; no point in leaving a perfectly good shirt to rot away in the elements. Re-crossing Mill Creek, I dunked my foot, but we were almost back to the truck. The sun was in my eyes as we walked the last few tenths of a mile; passing puddles that Trey and I skirted and Addie sloshed through. I paid more attention to the tracks of ATV Guy as we approached the parking lot, and observed that he had accessed the gated road illegally by driving through the brush and bypassing the gate. The GPS said we were 3.3 miles from our turnaround point, but because the roads aren’t straight, we must have walked considerably more than 6.6 miles. I was very pleased with that foray, having taken good photos to make view sketches from.