It takes quite a jolt to excite residents of Washington, DC. Front-page scandals? Yesterday's news. Political intrigue? Comes with the territory. But when two brand-new federal wilderness areas just a couple of hours' drive from the Capitol are designated? Now that's something to get excited about.
In November 2000, Priest and Three Ridges Wildernesses received official designation from Congress. Of the two areas, my favorite for a weekend trek is the slightly larger 6,000-acre Priest Wilderness. The Priest, the area's namesake mountain, joins The Cardinal and The Friar to form what's known locally as the Religious Range. The Priest also anchors the northern end of a stretch of high country where the Appalachian Trail threads for about 20 miles among eight 4,000-footers. At the southern end is Mt. Pleasant National Scenic Area, dominated by Cole Mountain, a classic southern Appalachian bald with a 360-degree view.
In late spring, I ascended along a stream and past rhododendron and mountain laurel in full bloom. Twisted roots clung to boulders, and sinewy branches held purple blossoms suspended over beautiful reflecting pools. The scene reminded me of the wild-yet-harmonious perfection of Japanese gardens.
Both stream and blooming shrubs faded as I climbed higher, gaining a quad-burning 3,000 feet in just 5 miles. The leaves on the trees, lush and green at the bottom of the mountain, shrank to mere buds on the ridge's trees, as if the trees up high were only now sensing spring's arrival.
At the top of The Priest, I pitched my tent near a rocky cliff where I could watch the sun set in a blaze of orange and gold. The Blue Ridge generally forms a thin chain of peaks that tower over farms, fields, and towns, but from this perch, I gazed out on nothing but a sea of mountains. I watched in silence as the stars appeared and the wilderness grew as quiet as a church.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Priest Wilderness, Virginia
DRIVE TIME: About 3 hours (160 miles) southwest of Washington, DC, and 2 hours (120 miles) west of Richmond, Virginia.THE WAY: From the DC area, take US 29 south through Charlottesville to VA 56. Drive west on VA 56 for 10 miles to a trailhead where the Appalachian Trail crosses the highway or continue 4 miles farther to the Crabtree Falls trailhead.TRAILS: Between VA 56 and US 60, a 27-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail traverses this section of the Blue Ridge. Start at the AT trailhead on VA 56 and hike south (the first 6 miles are in the wilderness area). A good weekend plan is to hike 5 miles to the top of The Priest, set up a basecamp, and explore along the AT and connecting trails.ELEVATION: The high point is The Priest at 4,063 feet. Low point is the Tye River at about 900 feet.CAN'T MISS: Crabtree Falls, one of the highest falls east of the Mississippi, and the spectacular view from Spy Rock.
CROWD CONTROL: Leave the crowds behind by climbing above Crabtree Falls. Avoid hunting season, November to January.
SEASON: Late May to early June is the best time to see the rhododendron and mountain laurel in bloom. Winter's bare trees and frozen waterfalls are spectacular.
GUIDES: Hiking Guide to the Pedlar District, by Michael T. Shoemaker ($6); Map 13 in the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) series ($5). For book and map, contact the PATC, (703) 242-0693; www.patc.net.
WALK SOFTLY: Near Crabtree Falls and trailheads, camping is restricted. Don't build fire rings anywhere in the wilderness.
CONTACT: Glenwood-Pedlar Ranger District, George Washington National Forest, (540) 291-2188; www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj.