Grayson Highlands 2014–Day 5 (Sunday Services, Salamanders … Slimy Flat Tires)

A windy morning greeted us this Sunday…


… time to join Wayne and Margaret for church services at the campground amphitheater.


2 Timothy 2:15 King James Version (KJV)

15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Wayne and Margaret have been faithfully ministering to all who would come to Sunday services here for years upon years.  I am thankful to them and to all who minister to the few who still show up at vacation destinations for Sunday services.

Wayne does it old-school.  A few hymns out of the hymnbook (haven’t found one yet he doesn’t know) all “A capella,” and teaching from a particular passage in the Bible.  What a contrast to the mega churches of today.

After church our family and camping friends joined up for a “Salamander Hike” led by Park Interpreter Brooke.  Always lots of fun – kids turning over rocks looking for salamanders!


Nice to see that GHSP has implemented Stampers Branch as a TRACK Trail.


Starting out, watch out for all the stinging nettle!  If Bill Heavey is to be trusted (he would probably say not to) in his book “It’s only Slow Food Until you Try to Eat It” this stuff is edible if you cook it first.  I do know that deer love to find this stuff…


A few of our salamander finds on the hike.  Remember, don’t touch with your bare hands.  These guys need to keep their slimy coating on!



“Bear corn” :


Our Boykin having a drink…


Another find:



Something I’m still trying to identify:


On the way back – past the stinging nettles again…


After lunch it was time to get out the mountain bike.  It had been a few years since I’d tried the “trails” in the park and the adjoining Mt Rogers Rec Area.  I call them “trails” as they are barely ride-able in some places, at least to me.  They are all doubletrack but there are so many large loose rocks you wonder how anyone could hike them, much less ride on a bike or a horse.  The last time I tried this ride I was in nowhere near the shape I am in now, and had to hike-a-bike many times because I didn’t have the legs or the lungs for the grades.  I wanted to see how much better I could do this now.

My route was from the campground, north to Wilson Trail, Seed Orchard Rd Trail, and Scales Trail (should have stayed on the Highlands Horse Trail in retrospect) to Scales.  From Scales I would take the Crest Trail to Rhododendron Gap.  Then turnaround and head back.  Simple enough, right?

Starting out is very ride-able.  Watch out for a few loose rocks, cross the creek on your bike if you dare, and stay away from the horse patties.



Negotiate this gate and then you’ll be headed towards the park boundary.



At the park boundary, looking north towards another creek crossing.  If you’re experienced at mountain biking you should be able to “clean” the whole trail to this point, including this crossing.  Since I had been doing so much road riding I hiked this part.  Not too confident in my technical skills these days.


The view looking back after crossing.  Now you’re on the “federal” land (Mt Rogers Rec Area).


Moving on I decided to take the Scales trail to the right.  I remembered I had trouble getting up the “waterbar” grades, and wanted to conquer them with my stronger legs.


Except there was nothing doing for that desire.  I could have made these climbs but the rocks were just too many for me.  Try and find a clean line for this, knowing that if you mess up over one loose rock it’s not going to end well.  None of these rocks are stable.  None of them.  I decided more hike-a-bike for most of the Scales Trail.



This next part was a mess.  Not as many rocks, but so much water you couldn’t see what was hiding from you, and mud that would suck your wheel in.  This was like Frogger hopping from one rock to another … on mountain bike shoes nonetheless.  Not that great.


Just south of Scales it got “easier” …


And finally the approach to Scales.


What I recall being told about Scales is it’s where folks used to weigh their livestock in the area.  Or maybe it was their ponies.  Regardless, after all the work it took me to get to this point, it’s rather otherworldly to think about the hardiness it would take to simply exist up here for any length of time.  Rather foreign to someone who drives a desk and a PC all day.


This area is fenced in and somewhat accessible by vehicle from the north for camping.  It’s a great spot with beautiful wide-open views, very different to typical forested mountains of the area.  While I was here I saw some longhorn cattle grazing, which was surprising.  Free range cattle on open public land is not a phenomenon you see that often in the east.  Our industrial food chain would like us to romanticize this rarity into the food we see at the grocery, but the truth of the feedlot has a grim reality to tell us.  But don’t get me started on that today.  I’ll just relish the fact that someone out there is still wanting to do it old-school, and the public land managers are willing to let them (I’m sure for a price).



Look close for the cattle on the hill..


A panorama of the area…


Now it was time to hit the Crest Trail and on to Rhododendron Gap.  About 90% of the trail from Scales to Rhododendron Gap is ride-able for a mountain biker turned roadie like myself.  This part was worth the misery of mostly hike-a-bike to this point, as the views were far and away, and the trail was mostly “clean” of loose rock grabbing tires.


First, however, I had to climb out of Scales – something I could not do a few years ago.  I actually stayed on my middle ring for a decent amount of time before I had to make use of granny gear – but I was happy with the fact that I could stay on my wheels to the top of the first climb and up to the first “plateau.”

Once up on the ridge the riding was very enjoyable.  This reminded me of some trails in the mountain west I had only seen in magazines.  Ridge top running with huge views.


Sorry for all these over-exposed skies in this photos.  The only camera I’ll use on these rides is my Olympus TG-2 (water / shock / freeze / kid / bombproof) and I’m too lazy to play with the settings on a ride.  I just go with iAuto and run with it.  Overcast days don’t turn out as well as the sunny ones.






After a short climb from the ridge running fun I ran into another small herd of cattle.  I would have stuck around longer but one large white bull/steer was slowly making it’s way towards me with what looked like a stern look in his eyes … I thought it best to move on!



Quickly being on my way, I soon ran into another tough spot where I had to hike-a-bike.  This wasn’t so much about the grade as it was the deep mud.  Seems like a waterbar was keeping the water from draining anywhere and it was resulting in some deep mud puddles.  Better to walk around.


Continuing on to Rhododendron Gap, and I found where some welcome changes had been made.  I remember this being absolutely full of rocks, even worse than the Scales Trail (if that were possible to imagine).  However it looked like someone had run a Bobcat through and scraped the rocks off down to the dirt.  Or filled it in with more dirt.  Either way I was able to ride much further up towards the Gap than I recall.


This did eventually come to an end however.  The trail turned very rocky and I was soon in a tunnel of Rhododendron – which was quite pretty – only to be damped by approaching rain and thunder in the not-too-far-away distance.


Almost there.  Try to ride up this.  It’s fun to drop off from the other side but I have no idea how to get up this boulder.


Either I don’t remember or this is a new development, a trail off to the left towards the Gap so I could avoid “the boulder.”


Finally to the Gap.  Rain off and on, and a little cool and windy (thankful that I brought my Hincapie vest).



Two panoramas – one from atop the rocks in the last photo…


And another looking back down the trail from where I had come.


There are quite a few intersecting trails at the Gap.  This is a sign you see walking from where I had parked my bike to climb up the rocks for a view.  If you’re not familiar with this spot, better have a map and a compass and know how to use them!


Elevation at the gap, 5400 ft plus or minus.  At least I’m getting in some altitude training for Mitchell…


With the rain not letting up and thunder off and on I thought it best to hightail it out of Dodge and get back to the campground.  With it being almost 5 miles up I figured the downhill would be superfast and I’d be back in time for going out to dinner.

So much for that.  I was having a grand time jumping some waterbars just after starting back and blew a tire.  Literally.  I hit a rock somewhere on a landing and heard all my air and Stans-no-tubes blowing out of my rear tire.

As I was running a tubeless setup (Michelin) I hoped that if I tried to pump the tire up some more and give it a good spin the sealant would fix the puncture.

No dice.

Next up was my spare tube.  I took my time and tried not to rush, knowing that this is where things can go bad to worse (like breaking a valve stem) because of being in a hurry.  Despite the wind, rain, thunder, mud and various other elements conspiring against me I managed to keep things fairly clean and get the tube inside the tire.



This was a slimy mess.  Mud, sealant, rain … yuck.  I got it all back together and started pumping with my Topeak Blaster.  But nothing.  I knew I should be getting something going after a few pumps but no inflation.  I started to question the pump, but it checked out.  Without any other option I started to walk back (fairly ticked off that all my backup plans had failed).

In retrospect I had forgotten I had a patch kit in my seat bag as well.  I probably had a puncture or tear in my spare tube from the years it had spent bouncing around in my seat bag – and I should have tested it out first before mounting inside the tire.  It’s easy to armchair quarterback your decisions when your not in the situation of thunder and lightning approaching while you’re basically exposed on a mountain.

My walk turned into a run where I could, doing the best I could with mountain shoes on.  After about a mile or so I just got sick of the whole thing and decided to make do with riding on a flat tire.  I knew I would trash the tube, maybe the tire, but hopefully my wheelset would hold together.

My technique evolved into standing on the pedals, weight over the front wheel and letting gravity roll me off the mountain.  This was surprisingly effective and made me think I should have tried it sooner.  Instead of the Scales trail on the way back, I took the Highlands Horse trail (which made me realize I should have taken it on the way up as well).

Finally I got into a little more sheltered part of the trail and was soon at the border of GHSP – what a welcome sign:


From here was some riding and more walking … and finally back at the campground.  Busywife was worried since I was about 2 hours past when I said I’d be back (I swear my text went through!) but there was dinner ready for me so I wasn’t totally in trouble.  How nice it is to come back to your camper after a ride like this and get a hot shower.

Strava link for this bike / hike adventure…

Looking back I’m going to have to examine what changed about my setup.  I’ve been running tubeless for years, but I recently changed tires and bought new sealant.  Maybe my older tires were more puncture resistant, or maybe the new sealant was reformulated, or … ? My wheelset (Mavic Crossmax) did survive, but will need truing up.  Whatever the cause I’ll have things working for next year, because I’ll have a score to settle with the Crest Trail.  Next time I’m going to ride all the way back and do it on my terms – at speed!


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