Trail Details: The total length of the trail from its beginning at Cross Mountain in Tennessee to its northern terminus at Virginia Route 16, near Troutville, Virginia is 42 miles. It’s segmented almost in half by the trail friendly town of Damascus. This makes an ideal point of resupply for a complete end-to-end hike, or the perfect spot to segment the hike as part of a section hike for weekenders.
We set out at the very end of March to hike the Iron Mountain Trail. I streamlined the hiking crew to just one companion since it can get unwieldy to even plan a trip with the varying factors and influence of four or more people.
My friend Viking and I planned to hike this trail end-to-end. It has two distinct segments. One section is south of Damascus (about 19 miles long), and one section north of town (about 23 miles long). We planned to hike these two chucks in two trips rather than one because of work obligations.
As the date approached for our hike we arranged a rendezvous time to meet at Mt. Rogers Outfitter where a shuttle that Viking arranged would take us to the Iron Mountain trailhead.
I excitedly packed in the days leading up to my trip. My packed pack sat ready and waiting (an unusual occurrence) in the living room. The hike was also a shakedown hike of a new-to-me old school Kelty pack I bought at Second Gear earlier in the month. I got it for 35 bucks and it seemed like a worthy investment in a relatively lightweight, yet sturdy, backpack.
I left later than I had planned, but I was still on time to reach Damascus. I was a few minutes late to meet Viking because of a stop at the grocery store for the washroom, cheese and pepperoni. I bought a compressed fuel canister for my beloved primus stove at Mount Rogers Outfitters and we crossed the street to our cars where we laced up our hiking boots and made our final gear decisions.
The shuttle ran us about $22 each. It’s no wonder! We took the gas guzzling 18-passenger van up the very curvy road. We talked a bit of trail and ramps with Damascus Dave. We got to the trailhead and got out to unload; Viking pointed out to me that this wasn’t exactly where we wanted to be. I was still getting my bearings, but it slowly sank in that we weren’t where we wanted to be. Out of courtesy or bewilderment, or both, neither Viking nor I advocated to be taken to our intended destination for the start of our hike. Dave said his adieus and drove away.
Viking and I deliberated. We could get on the Appalachian Trail here and hike the 2 miles to reach the Iron Mountain Trail (IMT), but doing so would mean missing a few miles of the IMT. Neither of us wanted to compromise a true end-to-ender by missing several miles, so being dedicated (or bullheaded) hikers we turned on to the road and walked through the horse camp I remembered from my A.T. hike. Then it seemed remote. This day, the road seemed much more developed then it did during my A.T. hike, probably due to the context of arriving by four wheels.
At the far edge of the horse camp Viking and I stopped and deliberated again. Here we could take the Highland Horse Trail, another intersecting side trail, to reach the IMT. Again, we decided against it and walked on. Intermittently, cars passed. We thumbed, but none stopped. We sufficed to tell each other stories and invest our town-filled energy into the road walk.
After a couple of miles a guy in a truck pulled over and let us hop in the back of his pickup. He took us to the Troutdale intersection where he would turn right to go home. We needed a ride to the left, several miles to where the road crests the ridge.
While we stood thanking him for his generosity another man pulled up in his truck. He owned, we learned, the building where we stood – Jerry’s Kitchen. He said he had just closed it a week before, and he regretted not being able to offer us something. We assuaged his worries, letting him know that being fresh from town we were in need of nothing at all but a ride. This, he obliged us.
We sat in the bed of Jerry’s truck as it roared up the ascent of the ridge. It crested then began its descent. We missed our mark again. I told Viking “we just missed our road.” He extracted his map from the top pocket of his pack without losing a singular item to the intense wind we braced ourselves against and confirmed my theory. He knocked on the cab window, and our driver pulled off to a road on the left – Dickey Gap.
Jerry had understood that we wanted to return to the A.T. at Dickey Gap. There was no convincing him that we actually wanted to be left at the top of the ridge, so we contented ourselves with this destination. We thanked Jerry heartily for the ride as two forlorn looking women with large backpacks approached him for a ride into Troutdale.
Viking and I consulted our maps and decided that we had a few options from here. We could either road walk the half-mile back on the narrow-shouldered winding road to the top of the ridge, or walk the A.T. a bit and bushwhack up to the top of the ridge to connect with the IMT.
We chose the latter. We walked a half mile or so on the A.T. then took a line up the mountain to the top of the ridge, slipping on leaves, stepping over downed trees and branches, weaving between rhododendron, and pausing regularly to catch a breath.
Upon reaching the crest of the ridge it felt like we were on a very overgrown trail, thick with laurel and rhododendron. A sinking feeling hit the both of us, suspect of the trail we had just signed on to hike. Ahead there was a break in the trees, we pushed through the trail on which we stood to plant ourselves on a gravel road, the one Jerry had missed at the top of the mountain. We walked it back to its junction with Va. 16. There was no sign for the IMT, yet our maps showed it. Certainly we had been on it before, but it was overgrown. We decided to walk the road until the trail and road reconnected a bit further down. We met that intersection, where heaps of garbage littered the ground and faint yellow blazes indicated the IMT.
I whined for the need to refuel my body. We sat near the heaps of garbage in the road and ate a snack. Before long two pickup trucks drove past, sitting low with a large loads of firewood. The young man in the first truck knew nothing about trails. The second driver, a man with deeply weathered skin, laden with an aura of lingering cigarette smoke and whiskey, verified in his thick drawl that there was trailhead further along the road for Comers Creek Waterfall. We chose the road over the trail matted with detritus and overgrowth.
|Comers Creek Trailhead|
Just around the bend a ways we met the trailhead for Comer Creek Waterfall and the IMT. We took the blue blaze all the way to the A.T. and to the waterfall. We took photos. I marveled at how this wonder probably seemed like an every day occurrence to me when I hiked the A.T. in 2003.
|Comers Creek Waterfall|
We retraced our steps to the junction with the IMT and finally started on the actual trail at or after 3 p.m. – nearly four hours since we left Damascus.
We climbed along the ridge. From here the trail was well maintained, open. My mind started to relax into that easy place it goes when I walk on a path four-feet wide and eight feet tall, carved through the trees, along ridges and beside streams. As I crossed a style into a pasture, I saw a turkey. Then it saw me and took flight in that labored way they tend look as they take off – like they won’t last long in the air before touching down again, just out of sight.
|Turkey Sighting Central|
The trail passed right back out of that same pasture over another cow style, as if the sole purpose for passing through was the brief touch with turkey. Into the woods we walked again. Then it opened up again to high balds being reclaimed again by woods. We walked along the open ridge for quite a while, gazing at the Balsam Range that includes the Grayson Highlands, Mount Rogers, and the Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian Trail used to follow this this path on this ridge, but it was relocated near Mt Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, and through scenic Grayson Highlands State Park in 1972. The Iron Mountain is now a multi-modal trail open to hikers, cyclists, and horses. I saw evidence of four-wheelers and some motorbikes, and I’m confused as to whether these are permissible uses throughout the length of the trail or only on certain sections, or completely restricted.
Within the first two miles or three miles, we had walked sections that it seemed only hikers could feasibly pass through, we walked narrow corridors, climbed over a few fallen trees, and easily navigated at least one poorly marked junction.
By the time our path reached the intersection with the Highlands Horse Trail it was wide and worn. It was rocky and I imagined that water flowed in the channel that was the trail during heavy rains. Soon, we reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail. It was dusk and a couple we presumed to be A.T. hikers were setting up camp a couple hundred yards away. They ignored us as we deliberated briefly on how much farther we would walk.
We walked another quarter or half mile to reach Hurricane Mountain Trail and some reasonable ground for setting up camp. We considered pushing on to reach the shelter, then decided to stay. I think it was a good choice. Not long after making our decision, the drizzle set in and the clouds moved in low to blanket us for an Appalachian’s night sleep.
We talked for a while, Viking at the tree by his tent, me at the door of mine, as we ate dinner before retreating inside our respective homes.
I tried to rouse us at dawn, but that didn’t work. Between us we didn’t have a watch, but I think I was on trail by 8. I walked the mile to the Cherry Tree Shelter with Viking bringing up the rear. Situated in a clearing, it was still shrouded in the morning mist and gave me deep gratitude for the extra quiet I feel when there’s fog. It always gives mornings more solemnity.
|Cherry Gap Shelter|
I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. I was waiting to sit under the eves of the shelter, make a hot coffee with my Via, and drink in the morning as I ate my Lara Bar. We got water from the stacked stone box that held the spring water using Viking’s water filter. I toyed with the idea of flipping some rocks or digging through the mud in the stream downhill from the spring in an effort to spot and photograph crayfish, but I felt too cold to worry with it.
It was breezy. I pulled on my wool neck warmer, donned my fleece, and fired up my stove. We lingered a long time here, instigated entirely by me. I felt really happy at the shelter. We talked about all kinds of things, but I distinctly remember talking about the PCT. I had recently met with a friend of a friend who wanted advice for her upcoming PCT hike. I shared what advice I had to offer, which hasn’t changed much since my post PCTmusings on the matter. My conversation with her invigorated me for the trail. I was longing for it while I talked to Viking. (Apparently my longing was contagious. He put notice in for his work shortly after our hike and started his PCT hike earlier this month.)
We departed well after an hour, maybe closer to two, after eating breakfast, drinking two cups of coffee, and having copious amounts of trail talk.
Viking set off down the trail before me. I had a couple things to wrap up. Even after I had closed the gap, when he was within sight distance, I lagged behind relishing what quiet morning hiking does for clearing my head. I observed how moss really gets its “pop” when it’s foggy. Unlike everything else that seems muted by the opaque atmosphere, moss on rocks seems more vibrant green.
The trail was wide, located on an old roadbed. Four wheelers or trucks had churned the trail in this section, leaving their muddy tracks. When we got to the junction with a gravel forest service road I discovered why. The barricades intended to keep vehicles out had been removed. Signs for the trail had been shot or otherwise mutilated into oblivion. Garbage at the trail junction was abundant there and for the next quarter mile along the forest service road we walked. We stayed on it for about a mile total, walking abreast and talking.
|Trail damaged by vehicles.|
The following ten miles we walked independently. Viking steamed ahead. I walked tenderly through the forest sensitive about its delicate nature. I smelled the vile scent of decay of what I presume was wildlife road kill at Va 600, and not far a junction with Skulls Gap Trail I picked my way through part of the trail desiccated by motorbikes as it ascended beside a stream.
I walked through a too small field. I wanted it to be bigger, and expansive. It ended suddenly returning me to the woods before I encountered Viking again at the Straight Branch Shelter.
I excitedly prepared the meal I wanted to cook the night before, but a hot meal had been waylaid by the rain. I carried dehydrated refried beans to which I added cumin and a little spice powder from a packet intended for salsa verde. I had salsa in a bag. I had an avocado, cheese, and pepperoni. This I rolled up in tortillas for some satisfyingly delicious lunch. It’s easy to become complacent when planning backpacking meals, so when I have an elaborately envisioned meal, just like at home, it makes it that much more appreciated. Unless it sucks. But this one did not suck. It was good!
There were five miles between lunch and the third and final shelter before reaching Damascus. We originally intended to stay at Sandy Flats Shelter, but discussed at lunch pushing the final five miles into Damascus instead of staying another night in the woods.
I left the decision in Viking’s court. We had already been hiking hard though the trail had been relatively easy. I felt like I could certainly do another ten miles; it didn’t seem as though we had already hiked seven.
Viking set out. I brought up the rear. I stopped and wrote in my journal along the way, and I didn’t see him again for the next file miles. I saw two mountain bikers and heard the peal of motorbikes on an intersecting trail I had just crossed. Then I heard the mountain bikers exchanging words with the motorcyclists; in my imagination the exchange was confrontational, maybe because it began with shouting over the motors. I was glad to have avoided the motorbikes altogether. As it was they had been a loud intrusion into my quiet walk.
As I approached Sandy Flats Shelter it started to rain. Then thunder and lightning began. An eagle scout, his two friends, father, and grandfather were working on the privy behind the shelter. Remarkably, they continued working to finish the project despite the storm. They were elated to add the throne itself as the final touch to their masterpiece. Having built a mouldering privy with HardCore once, I could empathize with the sense of satisfaction. It’s a bigger project that you first imagine.
While the rain thrashed the roof of the shelter, Viking and I talked earnestly about friendships, past relationships, and the pros and cons of continuing the final five miles to Damascus that afternoon. We had gathered from the scouts that it was already 4:30 and we expected nightfall by 7:30. We could make it, if we left soon.
While I preferred staying in the woods another night (why wouldn’t I), I was heartened to hike on when I found my headlamp. I had to unpack my sleeping bag to find it, but I FOUND it! It’s the simple things that are so important in the woods.
We decided once and for all to make a push for Damascus. We set off. I, in the lead, pushing hard. The trail steadily ascended a ridge. About a mile or mile and a half into the climb, I reached a switchback and big, heavy raindrops started plopping on me. I ripped my pack off in the quickening wind and unzipped the external pocked that held my rain poncho. I put my pack back on and draped the poncho over me and my pack. I hadn’t used my rain poncho on a backpacking trip, ever. It seemed that this gully washer was going to offer a good test run.
I hustled down the trail. The rain bullets and wind subsided. Renewed with hope, and overheating, I slid the hood off my head. I kept my quick pace to out-walk the inevitable storm as much as possible.
The wind swept up the ridge again, and again subsided. When the wind hit my face I looked up to the dark and ominous skies pushing toward me.
The rain started. Head down, hiking hard. My poncho was less than perfect. Rain soaked my skirt. Rain soaked my shirt. A stiff fold in it channeled water onto me rather than away from me. I mentally wrote off using the poncho again on a future hike; this is an important milestone for any piece of hiking gear.
The junction with the side trail to the A.T. gave me momentary pause. It would be the longer walk to town, per the guidebook, though it was a more agreeable hike. The route ahead on the IMT would be a difficult, rocky, and steep descent, but it would be shorter. We forged ahead on the IMT.
With Damascus two miles ahead, the storm hit with furry. Rain, rain, lots of rain. This trail, heavily used by mountain bikes, is routed clean of topsoil by fast moving water, exposing lots of rocks to stumble on and over. Lightening frequently illuminated the forests nearby punctuated by the immediate claps of thunder. The wind rose again. Then, the unexpected, hail. Buckets of hail. The dime sized ice pellets thwacked my head, shoulders, and arms. When they struck my exposed hands and forearms it stung. I was grateful for my poncho again. Now it was the buffer between me and the ice slingshot from the sky. I imaged my skin marked by polka-dot bruises as I careened down the trail, feeling exhilarated by the rush of adrenaline. Between lightening, thunder, wind, hail, and approaching nightfall I screeched with laughter. This was too much. It was unbelievable. It was terrible and wonderful. The soaked red clay was being covered over by white, and the forest again shifted to my sight into something completely different.
Viking was ahead, moving fast. I couldn’t keep up with him. I picked my way as carefully as I could through the rocky trail. I cautiously chose my steps to protect my left ankle from a haphazard step that would turn it and leave me writhing in the mud. I was bemused by how fast I was able to move despite my caution, but Viking frequently vanished out of sight.
The hail let up for a while. Then it started again as the trail leveled by a stream. Then the trail became the stream. We walked through ankle deep water, sloshing through, not around, water because, like I learned in 2003, at some point there is no way to regain being dry. Each step oozes some water out of your boot while fresh water oozes back in to replace it.
We were euphoric to reach the blacktop of the road that would lead us a to town. It wasn’t far, but we were more exposed. It was still hailing, and there were no trees to take some of the fall for us. It was just us, the asphalt, and Mother Nature.
People in town were like ants in a rain storm, except they were in their cars, driving around seeking protected shelter to keep the cars’ finish from getting banged up by the hail, seeking the metaphorical higher ground. It was comical to my mind that here we were, exposed to the elements, wet, and walking through puddles inside our own boots. We should have been uncomfortable, seeking higher ground, banging on doors to be taken in by someone, eating pizza, but it seemed entirely normal this way. I felt satisfied with my 17 miles this day, the 2 by road and 3 by trail we walked the day before.
Buoyant, I felt my spirit clean and renewed, after just two short days on the IMT.
As I narrowed in on my car, I recalled another conversation I had with Viking at Cherry Tree Shelter. It was about the expression, “the trail gives you what you need,” and I thought, “and so it has.”
I haven’t hiked the second portion yet. When I do, I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.
Trail Maps and Guides that Viking and I used on this trip:
- Mount Rogers National Geographic map,
- Map 1 of the A.T. Map pack for the Virginia George Washington/Jefferson National Forest, and
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Southwest Virginia guidebook.