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Volunteers closing 30-mile 'missing link' in Allegheny Trail

Rick Steelhammer
Doug Wood, trail coordinator for the southern end of the 330-mile Allegheny Trail, goes over the approximate path he and a group of volunteers will follow in blazing a mile-long section of trail on Peters Mountain, near the Virginia-West Virginia border.
Rick Steelhammer West Virginia Scenic Trails President Brian Hirt leads a group of trail-scouting volunteers through a laurel thicket.
Rick Steelhammer Robert Shaw of Lewisburg ties surveyor's tape onto a tree to mark the route of a new section of the Allegheny Trail.
Rick Steelhammer Volunteers led by Carl McLaughlin of Cross Lanes walk along the remnants of the 19th-century Sweet Springs-Fincastle Turnpike to reach the site of an Allegheny Trail segment.
Rick Steelhammer This sign, at the trailhead for the Allegheny Trail's southernmost section, shows the miles needed to reach its southern end, at a junction with the Appalachian Trail.

PAINT BANK, Va. -- For the West Virginia Scenic Trails Association, it's 40 years down and 30 miles left to go.

Since its creation in 1974, the hiking group's main goal has been completion of the 330-mile-long Allegheny Trail, a pathway stretching from Pennsylvania's border with Preston County near Bruceton Mills to a junction with the Appalachian Trail in Monroe County.

"We have all but about 30 miles done now, most of it in Alleghany and Craig counties in Virginia," WVSTA President Brian Hirt said. The Allegheny Trail's missing link extends from the point it crosses under Interstate 64 near the Virginia-West Virginia border just east of White Sulphur Springs to the Laurel Branch community in Monroe County.

Heading south from Laurel Branch, the trail ascends Peters Mountain, and follows its crest past Hanging Rock Tower, the state's busiest hawk-watching site, for another 12 miles, where it meets the Appalachian Trail near its Pine Swamp Branch shelter. Heading north from I-64, the trail is complete to the Pennsylvania border.

Last weekend, Hirt and 10 other WVSTA members made their way through a section of the trail's missing link on U.S. Forest Service land on the Virginia slope of Peters Mountain between Sweet Springs, W.Va., and Paint Bank, Va. After studying topographic maps and satellite views of the area to identify what looked to be the most promising corridor, they trekked through the woods on foot to flag the best trail route through the corridor.

"Today we'll be bushwhacking through about one mile of national forest, starting from the old Sweet Spring-Fincastle Turnpike partway up the mountain down to Potts Creek," said Doug Wood, trail coordinator for the southernmost section of the Allegheny Trail.

Members of the trail crew were given rolls of bright orange tape to tie on trees and brush to mark the path of the prospective new trail, along with pruning shears to help them hack their way through rhododendron and laurel thickets.

"After we mark a trail route through the national forest land, people from the Forest Service check our route and make any changes they feel are needed before approving it," Wood said. Then it will most likely be up to the WVSTA to build the trail to Forest Service specifications, he said.

In the Virginia and Monroe County sections of the trail, the pathway passes through the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. North of I-64, the trail passes through the Monongahela National Forest, starting near Lake Sherwood.

While the Allegheny Trail makes use of public lands wherever possible, it does cross through several private tracts, with owners' permission, and follows the less-traveled country roads between trail links.

"We like to use existing trails or follow old logging roads when we can," Wood said, "but in the area we're working in today, there are no known trails."

The Allegheny Trail, West Virginia's longest public pathway, is divided into four maintenance sections of similar length, with WVSTA volunteers monitoring and maintaining each section. The four sections also are used as dividing points by long-distance hikers seeking to walk the length of the trail in stages, rather than all at once.

Section One starts at a trailhead information kiosk on the Mason-Dixon Line and West Virginia-Pennsylvania border in Preston County and moves southward through Rowlesburg before entering Blackwater Falls State Park. Section Two begins at Blackwater Falls' horse stables and crosses through Canaan Valley State Park and a stretch of the Monongahela National Forest before entering Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.

From Cass, Section Three travels through a section of the Monongahela National Forest, as well as through Seneca State Forest and Watoga State Park. It ends along Lake Sherwood Road near White Sulphur Springs. In Section Four, a temporary route along country roads allows hikers to bypass the trail's missing link and rejoin the pathway at Laurel Branch, in Monroe County.

Hirt estimated that 50 to 100 through-hikers travel the length of the Allegheny annually, with day hikers and overnighters accounting for most of the trail traffic.

The most heavily traveled section of the Allegheny is the mile-long stretch in Monroe County that extends from Limestone Road atop Peters Mountain to Hanging Rock Tower, a former forest fire lookout. Now used mainly by birders, the tower provides a shelter for people monitoring the annual migrations of hawks, eagles and other birds of prey.

Last year, from August to December, more than 2,000 people from 36 states and 16 foreign countries followed the yellow blazes of the Allegheny Trail to Hanging Rock to take in the view and watch migrating raptors.

One of the reasons for developing the trail was to provide an option for long-distance hikers lacking the time and resources to tackle the Appalachian Trail.

In addition to being much less crowded than the Appalachian Trail, Hirt said, "I think the Allegheny Trail gives hikers more of a natural experience and a better chance to see wildlife."

A detailed, section-by-section trail guide for the ALT, with photos, maps and directions to shelter locations, campsites and water sources, is available at the WVSTA's website, www.wvscenictrails.org.

A variety of 40th-anniversary activities is planned this year for the WVSTA and the Allegheny Trail, including a May 16-18 "Spring the Trail" maintenance weekend on an ALT segment along Glady Creek, in Randolph County, and a 40th-anniversary celebration in Charleston on June 12. Public hikes will lead over the ALT's first marked section, near the Buckskin Council of Boy Scouts of America's camp at Dilleys Mill in Pocahontas County, and along the first blazed section of trail on Peters Mountain, in Monroe County. Visit the association's website for details.

"While several of these events are labeled work hikes," Hirt said, "they are also an excuse to get out and visit scenic areas and enjoy nature, while improving the trail."

In addition to creating the ALT, the 140-member WVSTA conceived and built 4-mile-long Groundhog Trail near Linside, in Monroe County, to provide access to the Appalachian Trail.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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