Ascent of Elliott Knob on 2004-08-07

Climber: Scott Surgent

Others in Party:Beth Cousland
big snake
Date:Saturday, August 7, 2004
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Elliott Knob
    Elevation:4463 ft / 1360 m

Ascent Trip Report

Beth and I had one day set aside for a big hike, and decided to take on Elliott Knob, which tops the Great North Mountain located about 15 miles west of Staunton and an hour north of Lexington. This peak has a good trail network, about four or five possible approaches, and based on previous reports, lovely views from the top. Also, Beth had hiked in these hills when she was in college, so she wanted to re-live some old times and show me what real Virginia hiking was all about.

From Staunton, we went west on US-250 and south on VA-42 to the small town of Buffalo Gap. We opted to drive up State Road 688, which leaves Buffalo Gap at a white church. The plan was to drive the four miles to where the road tops out at a pass called Dry Branch Gap, and where one access-point to the North Mountain Trail is located. From here, the summit is a shade over 4 miles to the southwest, with about 1,870 feet of gain.

As we turned off VA-42 onto road 688, a sign said the road was closed 2.5 miles ahead. We drove in anyway, and sure enough, 2.5 miles later, we came to a set of barricades. An older gentleman out for a walk came by, and we asked him if he knew any details of the closure. He said there were big earth-movers up ahead completely blocking the road, but that the trailhead was still open another 1.5 miles farther, except that one had to drive all the way around to get to it. We thanked him, then exited.

We drove back to the white church at the main highway and debated our options. I noted there was a trail and a service road about three miles south of us that led to the top. The service road was probably not as pretty a hike as a trail hike, while Beth's concern about the "Falls Hollow" trail was that it might be overgrown. We decided to make the 25-mile drive up and around to the other side. So, a half-hour later we make our way all the way around and finally roll up to the trailhead. Much to our surprise there was the old man again! He broke out laughing and was clearly surprised to see us again. We started hiking at 10 a.m. There was one other vehicle already there. According to the map we were at 2,591 feet elevation.

The hike started well. We followed the trail up a short distance, then down to a drainage, then up and up as it gained at a pleasant gradient. The forest was thick and green, and views were minimal. About a mile and a half in, we caught up to the other hikers, a couple out with their tiny Pekingese dog. They were locals and had hiked the peak a few times, but never from this approach. We kept moving and continued to gain until we got high enough to where the tree cover lessened, allowing for nice views to the valleys to the west.

About two miles into the hike, we came upon sections of trail that had become overgrown, with more rocks too. We thought about snakes, and I changed into long pants, and continued forward. Finally, we surmounted the main ridge, called the "Lead-Off Ridge" on the map, at a saddle between Peaks 4,141 and 4,067. Everything was good until we got to the highpoint of the trail just east of the summit of Peak 4,141. Here, the trail became extremely overgrown. It gave us our first (and only) view of the summit.

We were still over a mile from the top. In sections, the trail was just a faint path in knee-high grasses, with bushes and tree limbs in our way. We were very concerned about snakes. We went slowly and carefully, stomping whenever possible and finally, we came back out to more open trail. We followed the trail until it intersected the service road, which we followed to a turnabout. From there, we followed a faint secondary road to the top, marked by a large steel lookout tower amid a fairly broad, flat summit. It had taken us two hours to get here. There was a guy already here, having come up from another direction. He was checking off wildflowers from a list. We chatted, and he kindly took our photo. He then sat and ate his lunch while Beth and I walked to the summit rocks, a small pile about four feet high marked by a pole and a waist-high cairn.

At the cairn, I pulled out a strongbox and noted it was full of random crap. Ugh, a geocache. So I put it back in. Then I offered to take Beth's photo, so I walked back a few paces. As I did so, one rock moved. Then a rattle. Not a sustained rattle but a short one, then another. Beth saw the snake first and said something akin to "there's one big-ass rattler!". I ran a few feet away amid the jumbly rocks, turned, and watched as the biggest freaking rattlesnake I have ever seen uncoiled from his place of repose and slithered away. This guy was easily 3 feet and as big around as my arm (keeping in mind I work out a lot). He was probably not very hungry, ergo, he was probably in a pretty reasonable mood, as snake moods go. We watched him disappear, then attempted to do our own disappearing act as well.

Beth had an open path and bounded out, but I had cornered myself on the rocks, surrounded by thick brush. With adrenaline pumping and assuming there were probably a hundred more snakes ready to strike nearby, I made two big bounding leaps and got myself off the rocks and onto the open grassy area. We walked over to where the other guy was enjoying his lunch and told him about our snake friend. He actually seemed like he wanted to go and find him, but thought better of it. The three of us sat around and had lunch. Soon, he was off and Beth and I remained to finish eating and let the adrenaline highs wear off.

After we finished lunch, we debated our options again. Going back the way we came in seemed to be less attractive to us after seeing that big snake, but it was the most direct route back to our car. I was willing to go that way anyway, grab a branch and beat the brush as we walked through it. It would take awhile, but I was willing. Beth, however, wanted no part of that trail at all. The only alternative was the service road back down to the highway. After some discussion and ensuring we had enough water for the extra mileage, we chose this route, knowing it would mean about six extra miles of hiking: two and a half miles back to the highway, three to Buffalo Gap, and another four to our car.

The service road was steep and full of loose rock, but it went fast and we were down to the highway (VA-42) in exactly an hour, dropping 2,200 vertical feet. Now, we had to walk three miles north back into Buffalo Gap. This went quick, too, taking about an hour and fifteen minutes. The highway didn't have much of a shoulder, so we had to be careful when cars came whizzing by, and we hoped the drivers were paying attention as they passed us.

Once back in town, we walked to the white church at the corner of VA-42 and Road 688, and took a long rest on the nice lawn, being tired as we were. We had four miles to walk to our car, and we hoped that a friendly local would offer us a lift, but no one did, although they waved to us. Finally, we started moving again and in about 90 minutes had covered the four miles, crossing through the barricades and the big work equipment. We arrived back to our car at 4 p.m., exhausted and out of water. Our detour had covered an extra six miles and an extra 800 feet of gain (the lowest elevation was at the white church, at just about 1,800 feet, while our car was just under 2,600 feet). So, instead of an 8.5-mile round-trip out-and-back hike along trail, we did a 14-mile loop with a gross gain of nearly 2,700 feet.

To cap the day, which had already been epic enough, we hear two very loud gunshots coming from the trees nearby. It sounded like a shotgun, and it did not sound like it was coming our way. We surmised it was probably some local kids trying to combat boredom. Nevertheless, we didn't dawdle, and immediately exited the area, stopping at a small country store in East Augusta for much-needed drinks. From here we drove back to Lexington, staying at the Natural Bridge resort a few miles south out of town.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2800 ft / 853 m
    Total Elevation Loss:2800 ft / 853 m
    Round-Trip Distance:14 mi / 22.5 km
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:2800 ft / 853 m
    Distance:5 mi / 8.1 km
    Start Trailhead:1663 ft / 506 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:2800 ft / 853 m
    Distance:9 mi / 14.5 km
    End Trailhead:1663 ft / 506 m

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