Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mount Pleasant

Looking south to Big Rocky Row and Apple Orchard Mountain
5.5 miles loop, 1350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; short section of rock scrambling necessary to reach the west summit
Access: Good unpaved road to trailhead

Mt. Pleasant is one of the tallest, most commanding, and most scenic mountains of the Blue Ridge north of Roanoke. At 4060 feet, Mt. Pleasant is the third highest peak in the Blue Ridge north of the James River; its double summits tower over Amherst County and the upper reaches of the Buffalo River. Rocky cliffs line its pyramidal peak, and from the two summits, there is a combined 360-degree view of the great Blue Ridge peaks and the Piedmont. The 5.5-mile Henry Lanum Loop Trail, which visits Mt. Pleasant and neighboring Pompey Mountain, gives fairly easy access to Pleasant's summit, providing an astounding view for a minor exertion. It's a must-do for hikers base in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, or Lexington.

I did this hike with a friend during peak fall foliage season, during the third weekend of October when the view from Mt. Pleasant was so fiery red that the entire state seemed like it might have been on fire. We headed south out of Charlottesville on US 29 past Lovingston to Amherst, following essentially the same route I detailed earlier in my Cold Mountain post. We exited onto US 29 Business at Amherst and drove into the town; we then turned right at the traffic circle where 29 Business intersected US 60 to take US 60 west. From here, US 60 wound through the Amherst countryside at the foot of Mt. Pleasant until climbing slowly into the Blue Ridge. We eventually turned off the very windy road at Coffeytown Road (Route 634) and drove up that up to an intersection with Wiggins Spring Road, where we took the right fork onto Wiggins Spring, following the signs for the Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area. Wiggins Springs Road eventually turned into a gravel road, getting progressively bumpier as it climbed uphill towards Hog Camp Gap. Just past Hog Camp Gap, we turned off into a parking area for Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area to the right of the road.

Parking in the small lot, we followed the right branch of the Henry Lanum Loop Trail, a flat, broad trail through the autumn woods. At first, the trail stayed either flat, or slightly downhill and was simply a pleasant woods walk. The pyramidal peak of Mt. Pleasant loomed in front of us as sunlight set the trees ablaze in color. After about a mile in, the trail veered uphill and began a steady, but not terribly taxing ascent. At times, looking through the woods to the right, we could see some of the nearby peaks, a little blocked out by trees.

On the Lanum Trail
Before we knew it, the trail had brought us all the way up to the ridgeline of Mt. Pleasant, about 2 miles into the hike. We turned right at the trail junction, leaving the loop trail to ascend Mt. Pleasant. This spur trail was possibly one of the steepest parts of the hike, climbing fairly quickly as it switchbacked up to a saddle between the two summits of Mt. Pleasant. Here, two trails branched off in either direction, visiting both summits of the mountain. We visited the west summit first: from the saddle, this trail climbed onto a narrow ridge with occasional views, following the ridgetop until it dead-ended at a massive set of granite boulders. With a bit of help from our arms, we scrambled onto the granite and into a jaw-dropping view. Beyond the edge of the granite outcrops, the ground dropped away. A deep hollow separated the mountain from nearby Cold Mountain and its summit meadows. Past Cold Mountain and its neighbor Bald Knob, there was an unforgettable vista of the Blue Ridge stretching into the distance and out of sight, with Big Rocky Row sticking out and behind it Apple Orchard Mountain, the most prominent peak in Virginia, towering above the gap that the ancient James River has cut through the Blue Ridge. Tobacco Row Mountain rose out of the Piedmont when we looked towards Lynchburg.

View to the northwest
The view across to Cold Mountain
It was extremely windy and chilly, but the view was beautiful enough that we stayed at the overlook for quite a while despite the wind. After enjoying the view for a while, we decided to head to the east summit for lunch before finishing the loop.

While some hiking guides have described the west summit as being the more scenic of the two, I beg to differ. The top of the east summit was crowned with bushy vegetation and outcrops. Here, there was a 180-degree view to the east, directly into the Piedmont. We hiked a little downhill from the summit among the many paths into the bushes and found a nice rock to rest on and eat while enjoying the view. To the east, the mountain dropped away into the Piedmont, which stretched to and past the horizon. To the north we could see the very massive and lordly summit of the Priest and one of its smaller neighbors, the Friar. A bonus: it wasn't windy on the east-facing part of the mountain!

View of the Priest and the Friar towering over the Piedmont
This was certainly one of the most content moments I've spent in Virginia: sitting on a rock atop Mt. Pleasant in the sun, gazing out over the farmlands and woodlands in the state I've come to love very much.

When we backtracked to the top of the east summit, we walked over to some granite outcrops with a view to the south. The view from these rocks was thrilling. A ridge swept down from the nearby west summit straight downhill into the bottom of the hollow as if it were the backbone of the mountain. Enormous granite outcrops stuck out from the woods on the ridge like vertebrae. Once again, the view of Apple Orchard Mountain in the distance dominated.

View south from the East Summit
The rest of the loop was extremely pleasant for this appropriately named hike. After returning from the summit to the loop, we followed the Lanum Trail slowly uphill past the broad summit of Pompey Mountain. A faint, unmarked trail near the summit of Pompey delved into the forest for a hundred meters or so, leading to an outcrop in the middle of the forest; we scrambled onto this outcrop to see the rather limited views of House Mountain to the west.

View from the tiny outcrop atop Pompey Mountain towards House Mountain
From Pompey, we continued downhill along the trail, which dipped down, came up, and dipped down a final time to the parking area in the final 2 miles or so as it followed a ridge. We passed more spectacular trees on the descent and saw many ghostly-looking dying ferns.

Dying ferns on the Lanum Trail during the descent from Pompey Mountain
Mt. Pleasant is unquestionably one of the jewels in Virginia's Blue Ridge crown. Coupled with nearby Cold Mountain, the views and hiking in this part of the mountains are second to none even though they receive fewer visitors than the popular trails in Shenandoah National Park to the north. The drive to the trailhead is a little long and bumpy, but I recommend this hike to everyone. Do it.

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