“It’s only five or six miles, maybe 20-25 minutes to the trailhead. But it’s been a while since I’ve been there.”
That was the answer I gave when Gil and Sherrie asked before we left the gas station and Burger King in Salem VA. Salem VA is at Exit 141 on I-81, near Roanoke. Making this trip were CORE members Gil Campos and Sherrie Burns in his modified 99 TJ and me, Keith Holman in the trusty but non-articulating 91 S10 Blazer. It should be noted that CORE usually doesn’t make trips with less than 3 vehicles but we made an exception when our third vehicle had to pull out at the last minute due to a work conflict.
” A challenge is a challenge and we believed this one might be doable.”
Armed with a written set of directions courtesy of Mike Keane, we took off. Mike’s directions were dead on but they didn’t include distances. You know how you don’t watch distances as much when you’re in a string of vehicles? Although I had paid no attention to distance, I did notice a few landmarks. As we rolled past mile 10, I saw something I had seen before. That same thing happened again as mile 18 rolled by…and again at mile 26…and at mile 29. Every time the CB would ask “how far did you say it was?”, I would recognize another landmark or a turn noted on Mike’s directions. We passed the last landmark in the directions at mile 33! Just one more to go. As we drove past the unmarked trailhead, the odometer clicked off 33.9! As there was no sign at this end of the trail, having been there before paid off! The mantra of the day became “Only 5 or 6 miles!”
As it turns out, Potts Jeep Road is about 10 miles long (really). Mike and I, with some S-10 folks we knew, had run part of this trail last year. (See CORE’s trip reports for April 2001) but had only gone part way and turned around at the major obstacle (The Dip).
We pulled off the pavement and took a few minutes to lock hubs and disconnect the sway bar on the Jeep and I lowered the air pressure in the Blazer tires. Parked at the wide spot in the road was a white Ford Ranger pickup but no one was in sight.
We started along the trail and got the obligatory picture at the first stream crossing and started climbing. Just under half a mile into the trail (I’m using the odometer from here on out), we meet with three mountain bikers coming down the trail. Two riding and one walking. The one walking is all scraped up. We stop to talk and he asks how far to the white truck we had passed. He’d had a rough day, wrecked his bike and himself. We offered him a ride back but he declined. Gil and Sherrie told me later that the bicyclists had indicated surprise at the “that thing” (the S-10) on the trail. What can I say? When you drive an S-10, you get used to it. “That thing” and its driver were in better shape than the bike or its rider at the other end of the trail.
The trail wound on up the mountain, a couple of switchbacks and slight slipperiness adding to the enjoyment. The foliage was dense throughout the whole trail. Sherry pointed out it would be a really colorful ride in the fall.
The next large obstacle is the mudhole shown in the pictures. There are several approaches to it and it has been frequented by some large vehicles running very large tires. We checked the depth with a few sticks. Gil connected the winch controls and Sherrie and I positioned the cameras. A couple of passes by Gil showed the waterline to be just below the rockers on the big Jeep. “That thing” wisely decided to bypass the deep part and we were on our way on up the next rocky section.
The trail continues on through the forest and we began to see the wilderness signs. In this area, National Forest Wilderness border begins 100 feet from the center of the roadway and it is well-marked.After a bit, as we neared “the dip”, we came to a stop and started walking. We were nearing the spot where previous trips had stopped before. We walked up the rocky section to the precipice of “the dip”. I had questioned whether I could make it through and wanted Gil & Sherrie to scope it out before we committed to it. After walking it from about every possible angle, Gil concluded that it was probably doable. We discussed the fact that should it get hairy, my assistance would be primarily in the way of offering an anchor point for his winch cable. It was also discussed that this may be a “point of no return” for unknown trail.
A challenge is a challenge and we believed this one might be doable. We walked back to the Jeep and Blazer and started up the rocky slope. The section that had been previously identified as the bypass now appeared to be the more difficult path. I went up the main way in the Blazer, the Jeep took the harder bypass. Gil was beginning to regret not airing down as the tires kept hitting the rocks and not quite biting in. I gave him a hard time about the Jeep on the bypass and took a few pictures to prove it. Perhaps this would be my vindication for the 5-6 miles gaff from earlier! But skill and perseverance paid off. Both vehicles were now at the top.
It appeared to be a good time and place to break for lunch as well as switch places so the winch-equipped Jeep was in the lead. As we unpacked, it was discovered that no spoons had been packed for the yogurt! Being the resourceful four-wheelers that we are, we began to work to improvise one or more. We tried cutting spoons from the plastic of the yogurt lid, as well as digging through glove boxes and consoles for the odd spoon tucked away. Wonder tools didn’t contain spoons either. Eventually, Gil resorted to his digit-al spoon and scooped with his fingers. We captured the digit-al spoon with digitial cameras for sharing here. Resourcefulness isn’t always pretty but it pays off!
After finishing lunch and cleaning up after ourselves and the beer party that had previously happened at that location, we had run out of excuses and began the descent of the dip. Our ideal line appeared to be one where the drivers side tires would be climbing the rock as the vehicles eased down first drop while clearing the tree on the passenger side. Gravity sometimes prevents the ideal line from being the line you actually get to take and this time was no exception. Gripping the near vertical rock surface with the sidewall just wasn’t going to happen. The distance to the tree was sufficient to allow passage but not enough to give a wide berth. But Jeeps flex and eased on down the first drop uneventfully. Gil moved on across the bottom of the dip and we prepared to bring “that thing” through if we could. Thanks to the excellent spotting of both Gil and Sherrie, the Blazer came through on three wheels and unscathed.
About this time, Gil decided it was time to let some of the air out of those tires to help with the grip. He started on the drivers front while Sherrie started on the passenger side. I decided to help by starting on the drivers side rear tire. Apparently, I was a more efficient tire airer downer than they are as I started later but had a flat tire (too little pressure to register on the gage) before I realized it. Luckily, the Jeep is equipped with OBA in the form of the electric compressor for the lockers. Well, maybe. After several attempts, it became obvious that one side of the chuck would not work as we just couldn’t get the air through it and into the tire. The other side of the chuck didn’t have sufficient clearance to line up and even try. It looked like changing the tire was the only way. Unless…resourcefulness paid off again. By bending the flexible valve stem, it was possible (although awkward) to get the air in through the second side of the chuck. It didn’t quite redeem my blunder of flattening the tire, but it helped.
With softer tires, the Jeep started out the far side of the dip. The spacing of the rocks and roots had it spinning again in no time. As it worked out, all four tires had a different vertical surface to climb at the same time. Gil worked it and got up but certainly left me concerned about having to take the Blazer through the same spot. This is the reason why I didn’t go past this point before. As you come up the dip, you must make an immediate 90 degree right turn just as the tires hit the rocks and roots. I decided, and Gil concurred, that I would have an easier time if I could slide around to the left of where he had gone, passing between two different rocks but with better chances for traction. A couple of unsuccessful attempts at that got me to decide it was time to give in. I was going to get as far as I could the way the Jeep had gone and then take the strap to get on to seeing the rest of the mountain. Calling on past observations of folks driving large vehicles on the trail, I realized the 90 degree right wouldn’t put me in as good a position as a 450 degree right would Turn right by making a complete circle to the left! It worked. Got me lined right where I wanted to be so that I could try a slightly different angle from the Jeep’s. I eased into the place where the Jeep had begun to spin and was ready to see if I could bounce most of the way through. The tires hit just differently enough that the Blazer came on through sans strap! Wow! We’re pumped now and heading into unexplored territory. It should be noted that this was the last place I noticed the bicycle tracks. I think we had found the location of his demise.
This was certainly the major obstacle of the trail. We continued through some territory that contained numerous rock gardens and several looser uphill climbs. It was obvious that this part of the trail had seen less travel. We wound through several forested areas and saw the remains of a tree stand or two. Once or twice, it appeared as though the trail ended but it just curved around something else. We continued until the trail opened into this huge flat grassy meadow at the peaks of the mountains. Truly beautiful. The meadow was ringed by trees but you could see through them to the views beyond. We left the meadow to wind through more trees and met two vehicles coming the other way. We stopped and talked. The two were locals headed for a picnic in the meadow. One driver warned us of a rocky ledge ahead and commented that the dip must have deteriorated since “that thing” could get through.
Before reaching the ledge, we stopped to walk out on some overhanging rocks and snap a few pictures of the view. The trail left through another rock garden through some dense trees. Several spots had tight clearances between the trees or outcroppings of rocks.
The ledge we had been warned of presented no problems as long as you took it slow. There was another large rock that looked as though it had been placed to serve as a pedestal for some more pictures so we took them. I plan to use one of the shots in the ad to sell the Blazer with a caption reading “145,000 highway miles and 2,000 off.”
We reached the end of the trail just 10 miles and 5 hours and 45 minutes after starting. Average speed just under 2 mph, including breaks.
At the end of the trail, we met one of the local Forest Rangers who asked whether the F-150 with the flat bed trailer belonged to us. He was preparing to unload an ATV and find the scofflaws that were riding illegal ATVs in the woods. We hadn’t seen nor heard ATVs on our trek but decided later the Suzuki we passed may have come in on the trailer.
We chose to come home a different way, traveling up Route 18 to Covington and then over on 64. Follwing the odometer, it appears to be about 20 miles closer to use that route rather than going into Salem for those of us coming from the north. I’ll be posting specifc directions on the CORE members mailing list.
One more time, a bad day wheelin’ is better than a good day on pavement…and this was a good day wheelin’ that warrants a return trip!
Trail report written by Keith Holman. Pictures courtesy of Gil Campos & Keith Holman.