Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Blacksburg VA Remote Work Week 2021: Exploring Old & New - VT Nostalgia and Falls Ridge Preserve

Blacksburg Remote Work Week: Exploring Old & New – 6/14-6/16/21

The “work” part of our week in Blacksburg dictated our weekday mornings, but Jim and I took extended lunch breaks each day and/or knocked off early.

On Monday afternoon, we visited a small nature preserve in Montgomery County, VA. [Have you checked out the nature preserves in your home county? They may be a little under the radar compared to county parks. Go find those little gems!] 

Falls Ridge Preserve is extraordinary. On its 655 acres, the most prominent feature is an 80-foot spring-fed travertine waterfall; the stone looks like cooled lava, melted mud. There are also large sinkholes in the preserve suggesting underground caverns. Read about the property’s history, geology and natural features. Fascinating!

NOTE: We visited the preserve on June 14, 2021. This notice now appears on the website:

As of January 27, 2022, Falls Ridge Preserve is closed until further notice.

We are repairing the trails and allowing nature to recover following an extended period of high visitation and overuse of the trails. Want to help by volunteering? Contact: vapreservestewards@tnc.org. For all other inquiries about Falls Ridge please call:      434-951-0579.

On Monday night we carried lawn chairs and adult beverages to the front yard of our home-away-from-home and waited for sunset while soaking in the pastoral scene at Walnut Spring Stables across the way. Ahhhh.

On Tuesday’s lunch break, I introduced Jim to Heritage Community Park. We walked on mowed grass trails through the meadows down to Tom’s Creek. 

Tucked in a corner of the park is Nature Play Space, where several children and their adults were exploring the pollinator garden and interpretive signs.

When we were students at Virginia Tech, from time to time Jim and I would carry cheese and crackers, our backgammon board, a blanket, and a bottle of Lancer’s wine (don’t judge) to the campus Duck Pond. After dinner on Tuesday, we walked down this “memory lane,” enjoying the nostalgia of our idea of sophisticated interludes. We gave ourselves grace for our youth and gratitude for all the years between then and now. How lucky we were (are).

Wednesday was a full work day, except for Jim’s lunchtime bike ride. After the whistle blew, we strolled around another part of the VT campus (it’s a big place, y’all) including Burruss Hall and the April 16 Memorial Monument

Remember that dinner invitation? Bountiful hospitality, delicious Greek food, good wine and wide-ranging conversation on a cool evening in the Virginia mountains, all from a chance meeting at a brewery.

These experiences are giving us a lot to think about.

“You can’t force people to care about the natural environment, but if you encourage them to connect with it, they just might.” ~Jennifer Nini 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Blacksburg VA Remote Work Week 2021: Cascades Hike & Cruising Giles County

Blacksburg Remote Work Week: Cascades Hike – 6/13/21 - 4 miles

Today Jim and I headed just a few miles west of Blacksburg to a special spot for all Hokies: Cascades Waterfall in Jefferson National Forest. 

I’ve blogged about this hike several times (here and here) so I won’t get into great detail. We took the more scenic Lower Trail to the Falls and the Upper Trail to return to the parking lot. Little Stony Creek was flowing beautifully and even the air was saturated with early summer green.

Since we didn’t have to rush back to anywhere (we live here this week, remember?) we took a scenic drive around Giles County. We had lunch on the veranda at Mountain Lake Lodge of “Dirty Dancing” fame.

Did Baby dance down these steps?

There are still a couple of covered bridges in Giles County. We stopped to look at the Link Farm Covered Bridge over Sinking Creek, built in 1912. (This bridge is on private property so we zoomed in from the road.)

Is there a brewery open on Sunday night in Blacksburg? Why, yes, there is: Eastern Divide Brewery on the east side of town, a new industrial space with a wide grassy outdoor space for kids to run around. 

A couple of folks sitting at nearby tables struck up conversation and we were so immersed in the fellowship that we forgot to eat supper! We ordered takeout as the brewery was closing.  One of our new friends invited us to his home for dinner with friends later in the week.

Building community, checking off boxes, adding reasons why Blacksburg is the best place on earth…

“What if the Hokie Pokey really is 
what it’s all about?”
 ~a Virginia Tech fan 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Blacksburg VA Remote Work Week 2021: Heritage Community Park & More

Blacksburg Remote Work Week 2021: Heritage Community Park & More – 6/11 & 6/12/21 

Summer 2021, Jim and I were casting around for a week’s escape from the shroud of COVID and had a light bulb moment: could we combine (aka justify) a week’s stay in a place we enjoy without taking vacation time?

Yes, everyone else had already discovered the remote work week.

Our favorite place on earth: Blacksburg, VA, home of Virginia Tech, the place where two freshmen fell in love…yada yada yada. We visit often and always wonder why we don’t live there. So let’s find out what it’s like to be residents while school is not in session. 

Airbnb found us a sweet cottage on a hillside overlooking a horse farm (Walnut Spring Stables) right outside of town. Jim could just hop on his bike and disappear for hours along rural roads, and there are local parks and trail systems to be explored.

Jefferson National Forest sprawls to the north and west of Blacksburg and the Appalachian Trail passes by less than 20 miles north of town. There are well-known hikes like McAfee’s Knob and Dragon’s Tooth, but a little research and living local revealed treasures of all sorts:

Heritage Community Park
Poverty Creek Trail System (hikers/horses/mountain bikers)
Falls Ridge Preserve
Brush Mountain Park
Huckleberry Trail
Hahn Horticultural Garden
And more!

[I was excited to explore Pandapas Pond Day Use Area but was thwarted by its closure the day after we arrived for extended trail maintenance and boardwalk repairs.]

On our first day we walked around the campus and downtown Blacksburg, noticing what was gone and what was still there. Our favorite bar was still a bar (different name) and a pitcher of beer, once $5, is now $22.

The next morning, while Jim pedaled away for his first daily blissful bike ride, I met up with my friend Diane for a walk. She introduced me to Heritage Community Park & Natural Area on Glade Road, formerly a dairy farm, now 169 acres of open meadows, flood plain and wetlands.  We met at the parking area on Glade Road, which is an access point to the Huckleberry Trail.

Diane and I walked westbound on the paved trail and then crossed Meadowbrook Drive to the Gateway Trail. We mounted a steep charge up Brush Mountain until I cried “uncle” and we turned around to retrace our steps. Back near the parking lot, Diane led me through the area where the Brown family farmhouse and outbuildings are being reclaimed by Mother Nature.

Jim and I spent the afternoon cruising down more memory lanes. We found an access point to the New River (is this the spot where we went tubing when we skipped class?) 

We drove by the apartment building I lived in my senior year (remember our “beach parties”
 in February when we’d turn up the heat and put a keg out on the balcony?)

Jim’s senior year apartment no longer exists – we couldn’t even find the street for it. A huge apartment complex has replaced it. (They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.)

The town was a little sleepy, with COVID restrictions unevenly enforced. We had dinner at Blacksburg Tavern, which didn’t exist during our heyday. It was a nice breather to kick back and relax looking out on Main Street.

Academic buildings still standing, the drill field still the centerpiece of campus, many familiar scenes, and so many exciting new places to experience. For instance: breweries!

Rising Silo Brewery is our kind of place, authentic, comfortable, not fancy, and filled with people of all ages. Enjoy beer and pizza and tell them what you had when you pay on the way out. Open Wednesday through Sunday, live music most nights. Tonight we enjoyed a jam session of local bluegrass musicians.

Ah, heaven. 

“Listening [to bluegrass] is like running down a mountain on a switchback trail, the sound of surprise generating its own momentum.”
 ~Greil Marcus

“I hope you came out to hear some
 bluegrass music. If you didn’t, we’re both in
 the wrong place.”
 ~Ricky Skaggs

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Smokies 900 Round 2: Noland Creek Trail & A Change of Plans

Smokies 900 Round 2: Noland Creek Trail Campsite 64 to Lake View Drive &
A Change of Plans - 6/5/21 – 14.2 Miles

Carol’s morning stretch routine

Today’s plan on paper:

(1) hike the remaining 4.1 miles on Noland Creek Trail back to the car
(2) dump trash and anything we haven’t needed
(3) move the car to Tunnel to Nowhere parking at Lakeshore Trail
(4) add food for our second overnight hike out-and-back on Lakeshore/Bear Creek Trails
(5) get going!

We got up at first light, packed, ate monster donuts that Carol had carefully carried all day yesterday. The rest of Noland Creek Trail was a very gentle descent on a wide roadbed, enjoying the sounds of rushing water as we walked. 

I continued to mull over any possible variation on the plan for the overnight trip ahead of us but couldn’t come up with an easier version in our time frame that included Bear Creek Trail. It’s a very remote trail, 6 miles long (12 RT), and a dayhike from the Tunnel that includes it is a minimum 18.5-mile round trip. Add the 4.1 miles we’re hiking on Noland Creek Trail back to the car and that’s…too many miles.

Lake View Drive above us – the trail goes underneath it and circles around to the trailhead

The parking lot was filled with horse trailers unloading and preparing for trail riding. Maybe hitch a ride? (Just kidding.)

I spontaneously said to Carol, “You know, we don’t have to do this!” I truly had not been thinking along those lines, but we were at a decision point. We were both dreading the fully loaded haul halfway up Bear Creek Trail to Campsite 75 (Poplar Flats) and more miles after that. If our biggest goal of the trip was to test gear, well, we had already done that.

Just go home? Nope. Our secondary goal, covering some new miles of the Smokies 900 map, was still in play. Options: dayhike most of our plan, leaving out Bear Creek Trail?  Camp somewhere and do another dayhike tomorrow? Finding a campsite on a Saturday night would be hard, and there was nowhere else in the Deep Creek area that we wanted to hike – we’ve actually done it all.

Ultimately we crafted a respectable 10-mile dayhike route combining trail sections that Carol needed to cover and ones that I needed, with a side trip to Woody Cemetery for good measure.

New plan: Loop hike of Tunnel Bypass/Lakeshore Trail/Forney Creek Trail/Whiteoak Branch Trail/Lakeshore Trail through Tunnel back to Carol’s car.

Even with very light packs, the uphills took some effort after our big day yesterday. I was glad we had chosen this option. 

We started on Tunnel Bypass Trail. While I was admiring the mountain laurel,
Carol spotted another black bear rear end in retreat. 

Ghost pipe

Tunnel Bypass intersects Lakeshore Trail, where we turned left and dropped into the groove of the wide, deeply worn path. Mountain laurel arched overhead and sprinkled petals at our feet.

We passed Whiteoak Branch Trail, then crossed Gray Wolf Creek on a footbridge and looked for an unnamed trail on the right that leads to the Woody Cemetery. An extended picnic table sits in a clearing, welcoming family members and visitors to the cemetery on Decoration Day.

Cemeteries are usually located on high ground near a homesite or community. Woody Cemetery is a steep third of a mile beyond the clearing. As we approached, a doe watched us from the edge of the woods.

Most of the site seems stark, red dirt that at first appears barren until you understand that the woods have not overtaken it because of human caretaking. Artificial flowers have been placed on some graves.

There are rows of stone markers of differing sizes, some rough fieldstones and some newer granite ones placed long after the families left their homes when the park was formed. In all, about 65 loved ones rest on this hillside. 

Eight markers say simply “Infant Freeman,” which brought tears at the realization of what that family endured. I try to be mindful that these places are not tourist attractions; they are sacred and special to the families who lived and worked here and to their descendants. 

A beautiful redring milkweed

Carol and I returned to the Lakeshore Trail and continued to Campsite 74 (Lower Forney) at the intersection with Bear Creek Trail. The site is very large, with several campfire rings and sets of bear cables, a great basecamp for the area. Forney Creek flows swiftly along one side. Tents were set up and several backpacks were hung on cables but no people were around. We took a lunch break here.

Carol brought an entire container of Pringles, which I hadn’t tasted in years.
We ate half the can right there on the spot. 

After lunch, we hiked on Bear Creek Trail for .4 miles to the intersection with Forney Creek Trail. This is also the point where Bear Creek joins Forney Creek and the flow widens and continues past Campsite 74 on its way to Fontana Lake. We cheerfully said goodbye to Bear Creek Trail (we’ll be back!) and turned right onto Forney Creek Trail.

One mile up Forney Creek Trail, a right turn onto Whiteoak Branch, which is a short little trail that connects back to Lakeshore Trail. At that point we turned left and followed the Lakeshore two miles to its trailhead at the Tunnel.

An interesting find on Whiteoak Branch: hairy skullcap

Ready for our Tunnel finale!

If you haven’t walked through the Tunnel, it is a worthwhile unique experience. I’ve done it a dozen times – it never fails to give me chills. Alone? With a friend? Go for the darkness or use a flashlight? [Hint: a flashlight helps to see and appreciate the artwork.]

Safe on the other side

Another Smokies backpacking trip in the books. I’m sure Carol would have gone all in for the second overnight, and I shortchanged our endurance training, but overall the trip accomplished our gear testing goals. I’m still nervous about this Tahoe Rim Trail thru-hike business…

A glimpse of Fontana Lake from Lake View Drive

“You need special shoes for hiking -
and a bit of a special soul as well.” 
 ~Terri Guillemets