George Washington National Forest
The Wild Oak Trail forms a 25.6-mile loop mostly following ridge tops, beginning at the headwaters of the North River in Augusta County, Virginia.
Loggers, farmers and cattlemen lived in the area about the trail before the land was purchased by the Forest Service between 1915 and 1935. Much of the land along the North River had been cleared for farming, and the area now forested was used for cattle grazing. Grazing continued on portions of this land until the mid-1930's.
Camp Todd was the site of a herdsman's cabin, and later was used as a fire guard station. Much of the forest in this area was logged for local mills around Stokesville. Evidence of the old logging railroad can be seen at North River Gorge. The railroad tramway ended a few miles west of Camp Todd. Nearby is the Shifflett Plantation, a reforestation project featuring white pine planted in old fields in 1935.
Portions of the existing trail were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's to provide access for forest fire control. Now the primary use of the trail is recreational. The original trails were combined as the Wild Oak Trail, which was designated a National Recreation Trail by the Secretary of Agriculture in 1979.
Elevations along the trail vary, from a low of 1,600 feet where the trail begins at North River Gap, to a high point of 4,351 feet on Little Bald Knob.
Three access points from developed roads provide shorter hiking segments:
- Forest Development Road (FDR) 95 at North River Gap to FDR 95 at Camp Todd (10.2 miles)
- Camp Todd to FDR 96 (5.2 miles)
- FDR 96 to State Road 718 near Camp May Flather (10.2 miles)
The Wild Oak Trail is open all year. It is used mostly by hikers, with occasional horse travel over the entire 25.6 miles. During big game hunting season mid-October to the end of December more than half of Segment C, from Hankey Mountain to Bear Draft Trail, is open to all forms of motorized travel. Other sections are closed to motorized vehicles all year. Hiking is hazardous during autumn months when all sections of the trail are used by hunters.
Fishing: Opportunities for fishing are available at the following locations: along the trail-on the North River at Camp Todd and Camp May Flather; near the trail at Elkhorn Lake and at North River Campground. These areas are stocked with trout from time to time throughout the year, with emphasis in February and March to prepare for the opening of trout season in early April.
Flora and Fauna
Elevation changes of more than 2,700 feet provide a variety of tree and plant species along the trail.
Hardwood trees include birch, maple, cherry, sycamore, yellow poplars, and the many kinds of oak for which the trail was named. Cone-bearing trees include hemlock, white pine, Virginia pine and pitch pine. More than 40 tree species, 30 wildflowers and many kinds of ferns and fungi, such as mushrooms and toadstools, have been identified.
A number of permanent clearings and ponds dispersed along the trail provide a variety of habitats, and lead to an increase in density and kinds of wildlife in the forest. Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects all are well represented. Game and nongame species abound, ranging from bear, deer, turkey and grouse to snakes, toads, chipmunks and owls. Birdwatchers, hunters and photographers will find a wide assortment of wildlife for their own enjoyment.
Of the many side trails that intersect with the Wild Oak Trail, probably the most popular is the North River Gorge Trail, which descends for six miles along the river toward the North River Campground. The trail winds through an environment of moist earth and humid air that encourages lush vegetation. It should be hiked with caution during high water because it crosses the North River nine times.
Other side trails including the Little Skidmore Trail, Groom's Ridge Trail and Bear Draft Trail.
Visitors can expect to encounter a number of Forest Service management activities adjacent to the trail. Timber is harvested and used for firewood, pulpwood and saw timber. Controlled cutting of timber provides areas where wildlife can flourish and helps renew the forest.
Other forest management projects include wildlife habitat improvement, timber stand improvement, road and trail construction and maintenance, recreation area improvement, maintenance and clean up, and erosion control.
Visitors are encouraged to inquire about these and other Forest Service activities that will be visible from time to time along the trail.
Segment A: (FDR 95 to Camp Todd - 10.2 miles)
The first 4.5 miles of this segment, to Grooms Ridge Trail, is particularly lovely in early summer when long stretches of mountain laurel are covered with light blooms. Then the trail climbs to its highest point, 4,351 feet at Little Bald Knob, where the hiker will find a spectacular range of views to the east and west.
Parts of this segment are steep and rocky, with grades up to 32 percent. After Grooms Ridge Trail to below Little Bald Knob, a wider path provides about a mile of easy hiking. Later the trail becomes a narrow footpath that passes through an abundance of bear oak and mountain laurel.
0.0 The Wild Oak Trail begins at FDR 95 and winds through a wooded area of oak and hickory.
1.9 Overlook provides good view from both sides of ridge within a few yards of trail.
2.3 Trail enters area of pitch pine and table mountain pine, with mountain laurel in undergrowth
2.6 Wild Oak intersects Little Skidmore Trail, a side trail to be used for timber access
2.8 Wildlife clearing with pond. surrounded by maple, oak, hickory, black locust and dogwood.
3.3 Overlook, somewhat rocky, surrounded by table mountain pine, chestnut oak, red maple, mountain laurel
3.9 Rocky overlook, followed by steep and rocky portion of trail
4.6 Wild Oak crosses Grooms Ridge Trail, then widens for almost a mile of easy hiking until the beginning of the climb toward Little Bald Knob
5.5 Trail becomes narrow footpath, sometimes steep and rocky, on climb up to Little 'Bald Knob
5.6 Here and at 5.9 miles, Wild oak crosses short side trails
7.0 Little Bald Knob, at 4.351 feet, the highest point on the entire trail. A short walk out Bald Knob Rood leads the hiker to a spectacular range of views.
7.5 Overlook here and at 7.7 miles, This part of trail is often steep and rocky as it descends towards Camp Todd
8.8 Trail narrows, provides view of mountains through pitch pine and table mountain pine.
10.2 Trail crosses stream into Camp Todd at FDR 95
Segment B(Camp Todd to FDR 96 - 5.2 miles)
This is the most challenging part of the trail. Over 2.2 miles, on a narrow footpath up Springhouse Ridge, the hiker climbs more than 1,700 feet on slopes up to 46 percent. The descent, over 1.5 miles, is almost as steep. The trail then runs along Mitchell Branch, a pleasant stream about 50 yards to the north.
0.0 Wild Oak Trail leaves Camp Todd, becomes narrow, often steep and rocky, as it climbs toward Big Bald Knob.
1.3 Trail crosses spring, on untested water source that should be treated before use.
1.4 Intersection with trail toward Hiner Spring and Ramseys Draft
2.2 Big Bald Knob at a height of about 4,100 feet, is an extensive flat wildlife clearing of mountain laurel, bear oak and pitch pine. The watchful hiker may spot signs of bobcat.
2.4 Open area, grassy, with ferns and maple, followed by good location for camping.
2.9 Wildlife clearing with pond, scrub oak, witch hazel and blueberries.
3.6 Stream near trail, rocky, with small falls. Water is untested and should be treated before use.
4.7 Wildlife clearing in fairly level area of trail.
5.2 Trail intersects with FDR 96, as second segment ends and third begins.
Segment C(FDR 96 to SR 718 - 10.2 miles)
The first 6 miles of this segment--where the trail climbs and descends Hankey Mountain on a mostly gentle slope-once held dense stands of American chestnut, as can be seen along the way in the silver-grey trunks of the long-dead trees. The path widens to a road. which is open to ail forms of motorized travel during hunting season mid-October to the end of December.
On the last 4 miles of this segment, the trail is sometimes steep and rocky. with grades up to 32 percent. It provides a number of overlooks for excellent valley views.
0.0 Wild Oak Trail crosses FDR 96 and climbs a short steep grade of about 30 percent in on area of white pine and white oak
0.4 Trail again steep. and sloping off about 30 percent on both sides, with good view of surrounding mountains
1.3 Wild Oak turns south, as side trail goes off to the left
2.3 Peak of Hankey Mountain, 3407 feet a grassy area with abundant wildflowers surrounded by oak and hickory
2.7 Wildlife clearing here and at 3.1 miles the second populated with large white oak
3.2 Second peak of Hankey Mountain 3,450 feet in wildlife clearing
3.4 Small wildlife clearing. followed by wildlife clearings at 3.8. 41 and 4.3 miles
4.5 Wildlife clearing surrounded by wide variety of trees, including white pine. hickory. chestnut oak, maple and dogwood
5.0 Overlook, in area of scarlet oak and sassafras, leading into wildlife area at 5 2 miles with black locust and large white oak.
5.7 Wildlife clearing with white pine in center. two muddy ponds, view of valley
5.9 Powerline right-of-way provides good overlook to both sides of ridge
6.2 Wildlife clearing with table Mountain pine, abundant wildflowers
6.4 Intersection with Bear Draft Trail and rood, that leads to North River Campground to the north Wildlife clearing follows at 6.6 miles
7.2 Overlook, after which trail descends ridge and provides panoramic view
7.5 Wildlife clearing featuring large white oak, followed by overlook with excellent view of 7 miles
8.4 Area of table mountain pine, oak and red maple with blue berries and deerberries, leading to sections where trail is steep and rocky
9.6 Side trail to left leads to Camp May Flather
10.1 Wild Oak crosses North River, heads toward State Rood 718 at 10,2 miles
How to Get There
From Harrisonburg and Bridgewater:
Take State Route 42 south to intersection with State Route 727, just south of Bridgewater. Turn west on SR 727 to Sangersville, then turn south on SR 730. At Stokesville, turn west on SR 718 for about a mile, where SR 718 becomes FDR 95, at intersection with Wild Oak Trail.
Take U.S. 250 west. Ten miles west of Churchville turn north on State Route 715 (which becomes FDR 96), and travel a little more than four miles to intersection with Wild Oak Trail at point between Segments B and C. This intersection is a watershed divide, and the road descends into the North Bear area.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication