Saturday, October 5, 2013

Fortune's Cove

Fortune's Cove
5.5 miles loop, 1700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to the elevation gain, narrowness, and steepness of the trail
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required

Fortune's Cove is one of the hidden secrets of Central Virginia, a small hollow nestled in the low ridges to the east of the principal Blue Ridge, set amongst small 2000-foot peaks just past the vineyards of the Lovingston area west of US 29 not too far out of Charlottesville. A preserve in the mountains surrounding the cove protects a beautiful stand of young eastern hardwood forest and numerous small granite outcrops. The views here are not jawdropping, but the cove is very intimate and offers plenty of solitude. I visited on an early November weekend, just past peak foliage season, and had the entire preserve to myself. Be warned, though, that this is a difficult hike that gets harder the farther you go, and that is harder than suggested by its distance and elevation gain; if you're looking for something gentler, it may be best to turn back after the first mile and the first few viewpoints. Before you go, download and print a copy of the Nature Conservancy's map of the preserve.

On a very beautiful Saturday- the last weekend of fall- I drove down from US 29 from Charlottesville towards Lynchburg during the early morning. The red maples had faded, but the brown oaks and some yellow hickories were left, arching over the roadway that I followed south through the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Just before reaching Lovingston, I took an indistinct right turn at a hilltop onto Mountain Cove Road, or County Road 718 (if you've reached Lovingston, you've gone too far). Mountain Cove Road took me steeply uphill across a ridge, suddenly bringing me onto a magical plateau of vineyards, bright fall colors, and rolling hills. Two miles down Mountain Cove Road, I reached the turnoff for County Road 651- Fortune's Cove Lane. I turned right onto this road and followed it into a narrowing valley, past houses and a vineyard until emerging into a large field toward the upper part of the valley. Here, I turned into a grassy parking area marked with a Nature Conservancy sign to begin my hike. I was the only car parked here the entire day.

The view from the field next to the parking area
From the parking area, I walked further down the road about a hundred feet down to the actual trailhead, which was marked by two poles. The trail, which began as a former road, ran between the poles into the forest. The trail began flat but quickly began to climb as it entered deeper into the forest on the slopes of the cove. I noticed many tiny placards on the trees identifying the many different tree species in the area at the beginning of the hike. The forest around me had become mostly barren by this point, as the encroaching winter had begun to eat away at fall, but some bright trees were left and were particularly vibrant when I hiked onto the south facing slopes where the leaves danced in the low November sunlight.

The autumn woods
After a mile of rather steep ascent, with occasional minor rock scrambling, the trail leveled out a bit, just short of the ridge top. Soon, the trail came to its first viewpoint, a granite slab to the right of the trail that opened up a view of the Cove itself. High Top Mountain was visible across the small valley, while fields and a white house were visible below.

Fortune's Cove on a late autumn day

After relaxing for a short while at the view, I continued onward, soon passing a trail junction for the lower Fortune's Cove loop. I took a right to continue on the higher, longer loop. This trail combined gentle ascent and descents close to the ridgeline of Woods Mountain; however, many parts of the trail were extremely rocky. About half a mile past the first viewpoint, views started opening to the west through the bare trees. A mountain that I think might have been Big Rocky Row gradually started peeping above the ridgeline on the opposite side of the cove. As I climbed higher, views of the Blue Ridge in the distance expanded, until finally, from the pine-topped ridge of Woods Mountain, I could see a short stretch of Blue Ridge peaks towering in the distance above the steep hills of Fortune's Cove.

The Blue Ridge in the distance
Many of the viewpoints along this hike are on outcrops that are not directly next to the trail- a few require bushwhacking a few feet off the trail. Don't expect Old Rag or Humpback-sized outcrops here- most of the outcrops here are simply areas of granite stripped of soil.

After passing the last views of the Blue Ridge in the distance, the hike became more difficult. From Woods Mountain, the trail made a steep and sometimes rocky descent down a trail made slippery by the newly-fallen leaves. After reaching a saddle between Woods Mountain and High Top Mountain, the trail began to ascend High Top. The trail stuck to the south side of the ridge, occasionally passing by thickets of mountain laurel. At one point, there was a last granite outcrop with a view into Fortune's Cove. The ascent was generally steep and at some points was very steep; although there were some switchbacks in places, the trail often took direct uphill routes. The narrowness of the trail in places compounded the difficulty of the uphill, and the new carpet of browning hickory and oak leaves on the forest floor didn't help. However, with some work, I gradually made my way towards the top of the ridge, passing along the way some indistinct views through the trees of the hills to the north of Lovingston.

After a final steep uphill push, the trail began leveling out and turned to the left onto the ridgeline of High Top Mountain. In the summer, this part of the hike might seem like any other of the forested sections of trail; but in that undecided week between autumn and winter, when the trees were bare, I could see through the trees to the towering peaks on the Blue Ridge in Nelson County. Three Ridges and the Priest stood prominently to the west, capped in snow from a rare late October snowstorm. The snow I saw atop those peaks was actually left behind by Superstorm Sandy, which, on its way through New Jersey the weekend before, had left rain and snow in Virginia.

The Priest, coated in October snow from Superstorm Sandy
After peering through the trees to see these Blue Ridge giants, I returned to the trail and followed it to a junction with a trail leading to the top of High Top Mountain. I took this short spur trail, which led me to a grassy field decorated with transmission towers atop the mountain. The summit of the Priest stuck out above the brown foliage and dry grass on the field, but otherwise the view was not at all impressive.

The view from atop High Top Mountain
Returning to the main loop trail from High Top Mountain, I turned right onto the loop and headed downhill. The next half mile was one of the steeper downhills I've hiked in Virginia- it essentially amounted to a brutal, knee-pounding staircase. The descent continued into a stream valley and eventually began to level out as it neared the bottom of the cove.

A stream along the descent from the ridge
After leveling out, the trail interested first with the lower loop trail through the cove, and then passed a steep road leading up the side of the mountain. The final mile or so of the hike consisted of gentle up and downs along the side of the cove, above the field and private property on the valley bottom. The trail passed a small stream and views through the trees of the white house in the field with the granite outcroppings on Woods Mountain high above. Finally, I reached the road and turned left, following it a few hundred feet back to the parking area and the end of the hike. For a hike so close to Charlottesville, it was remarkable to have the trail all to myself on an autumn day.

No comments:

Post a Comment