Frothy whitewater rushed in a blur inches beneath my dangling feet. Lurching back and forth under a heavy pack, I shimmied across the huge tree trunk spanning Ramseys Draft. My companions had stepped across confidently, but vertigo prompted me to inch across on my butt.
Once on terra firma, I paused for a look around. The boulder-strewn cleft of Ramseys Draft was littered with trees a recent hurricane-strength storm had tossed around like toothpicks. High water had sheared through the stream's banks, erasing entire sections of a trail leading to the heart of this 6,500-acre wilderness area in Virginia's George Washington National Forest.
Ahead, my friends were crossing again, hopscotching from rock to slippery rock. These crossings became routine during our 7-mile hike to Hiner Spring, the headwaters of Ramseys Draft. Few hikes I've taken were tougher, but none held the reward of camping amid stands of virgin hemlock, some more than 300 years old.
Trails in this wilderness aren't marked, and they're only minimally maintained; some aren't even on the map. If you're up for rugged and remote, this is the place. Excellent views are also part of the bargain, especially from atop 4,282-foot Hardscrabble Knob.
For daytrippers and overnighters alike, water is the big conundrum in Ramseys Draft; there's either too much or not enough. You're guaranteed wet feet along the main trail that follows the draft, and campsites near the stream are prone to flash floods. Choose a campsite carefully along other trails, as well. There's no water at all on Bridge Hollow. Along Bald Ridge, there is none until you reach a mountain pond at the Wild Oak Trail juncture, 6 miles from the trailhead.
QUICK TAKE: Ramseys Draft Wilderness, Virginia
DRIVE TIME: Ramseys Draft is located in western Virginia, about 150 miles (3 hours) from Washington, D.C.
THE WAY: From I-81 just north of Staunton, exit at the VA 275 west bypass to US 250 west. The Mountain House picnic area and trailhead are 23 miles from I-81 on the right.
TRAILS: There are eight trails within or adjacent to the wilderness totaling 29 miles. Up Ramseys Draft Trail to Hiner Spring and back along Bald Ridge makes for a strenuous long weekend hike. Jerrys Run to Shenandoah Mountain and back along Road Hollow is an easy dayhike or overnight loop. Peripatetic types will want to connect with longer trails outside the wilderness, like the 25-mile Wild Oak and 30-plus-mile Shenandoah Mountain trails.
ELEVATION: Hardscrabble Knob--4,282 feet--is the highest point in the wilderness. The lowest elevation is 2,200 feet at the Mountain House trailhead.
CAN'T MISS: Stands of virgin hemlock more than 300 years old line the upper prongs of Ramseys Draft.
CROWD CONTROL: Rarely crowded, but spring is popular among hikers, fall for hunters.
PIT STOP: At the Buckhorn Inn the buffet is bounteous and the dress code is "come as you are." Leaving the trailhead, it's 7 miles east on US 250 on the left.
WALK SOFTLY: There are no designated campsites. Wilderness rangers discourage making new fire rings.
MAPS AND GUIDES: A Forest Service map is available by mail from the Deerfield Ranger District (address below) for $4. Be sure to ask for the attachment that describes the newer trails not shown on the map. USGS quad West Augusta covers the wilderness.
MORE INFORMATION: Deerfield Ranger District, George Washington National Forest, Route 6, Box 419, Staunton, VA 24401; (540) 885-8028.