A terrific little hike for hanging out with family and exploring the history of the hills of Virginia. This would be a great first hike if you wanted to introduce a friend to it. Lots to see and talk about, and not too taxing.
It took about an hour to drive to the parking area/trailhead from Fredericksburg, VA.
IMPORTANT PARKING NOTE: Pay attention to the parking information on the Hiking Upward site. The road to get to the parking area (England Mountain Road) is labeled “PRIVATE,” which could easily throw you off. The directions on the Hiking Upward link about finding the hike and parking are perfect. Follow those and you’ll be A-OK.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS + PREP/GEAR
Warrenton, VA on 30 December 2016
Our 21 year old son Hunter-the-Gatherer joined us on this hike. We did the usual brief day-hike prep, with the addition of extra food and Fergus’ Jetboil to make coffee. The plan was to make the most of the short hike by stopping to hammock and picnic for awhile. Colder weather meant more clothing layers than we’ve been needing so far this month. It was a bit windy and felt pretty chilly, until we got moving. Even got some minuscule snow flurries while we hiked. Almost as if it were the end of December or something…weird.
OUR HIKE NOTES
Finding the parking area is easy (once you get over the uneasy feeling of turning down a road marked “PRIVATE”), and there’s plenty of room to park. The site includes a big information board and some printed maps, placed there by the Nature Conservancy. The trailhead and trail are marked really well, somewhat obnoxiously so. Hiking Upward warns (in red even) of disoriented hikers wandering off trail and requiring emergency rescue…but it’s more-or-less impossible to imagine that ever happening, the way the trail is marked. In addition to prolific trail markers and Nature Conservancy signage, several large “END OF TRAIL” signs and chains contrive to prevent any unintentional deviations from the prescribed course.
The first mile of the trail is Up, through a series of switchbacks, but the entire elevation gain on the hike is only about 800-850 feet, so it’s not too daunting. Because the leaves were off the trees this time of year, we got some nice views of the surrounding hills as we climbed upward. The Wildcat Mountain hillside is super pretty, with lots of rocks and entwined roots, as well as many vestiges of its former human inhabitants — namely a series of stone walls in various states of disrepair.
The hike itself is easy, and not very long at 3 miles. Would be a great beginners’ hike and it was the perfect one for this day when we really wanted to spend some time together hanging out more than we wanted to take on a big physical challenge. Having not really researched the spot much before heading out, we were pleasantly surprised by how interesting it is!
The history of this hiking area is pretty damn fascinating, and makes us want to learn even more. This website does a nice job of concisely summing it up while also revealing quite a bit of information. A good starter site for learning the basic history. It mentions a “pond,” and we could clearly see where it had been at about 1.5 miles along the trail…but it was absolutely bone dry. It sits next to a deserted mountain home.
There’s not much creepier than happening upon a weathered, gray, decrepit house with broken windows and foreboding “NO TRESPASSING” and “DO NOT ENTER” signs around it, unless it’s the single black buzzard that was hunched ominously atop a crumbling chimney stack, its head cocked to the side as it warily considered our approach. Horror films have featured more cheerful settings. Movies with dueling banjos leap to mind.
Turns out, this was the abandoned homestead of Enoch Smith (1832-1915) and his family.
“…a few farmers and loggers remained on Wildcat Mountain into the 20th century including the family of Enoch “Nuck” Smith who, still spry in 1902 at age 70, would ride his horse each week down the rocky trail to the Enon Baptist Church at the foot of Rappahannock Mountain….The Enoch Smith house was built around 1900….The remains of the original cabin built by Enoch Smith’s parents in 1830 sit behind the house, consisting of a clay-mortared chimney.” ~ from Fauquier Trails Coalition
[Henri, our resident English teacher geek, would like to point out that Enoch Smith and Robert Frost — author of the famed “Mending Wall” poem referenced earlier in this post — overlapped in terms of the era they were alive. That poem was first published just 1 year after Mr. Smith’s demise.]
We agreed that we were OK with the idea of ignoring the signs to check it out, but not OK with vandalizing. Though the back door had fallen off its hinges, leaving the gutted property open to exploration, it looked as if merely stepping into the home might leave it worse off than when we found it. Henri was envisioning falling through the rotting floorboards…and Henri has seen enough thrillers to know that when there’s a large black vulture and ominous “STAY OUT” signs, smart people don’t run into the basement or attic when there’s no power just to see what the strange noise was. Henri, it should be noted, can wax a bit dramatic.
We opted to peek inside, but not enter. A little over a year ago, an intrepid young Youtuber apparently shared none of our reservations, and so ventured into the abandoned home & spring house to shoot some video and stills:
We’re sharing this video here in the hopes that future hikers will just watch it to see what’s in the house, noting that there’s nothing in there worth risking your safety or trespassing in it (potentially damaging it) to see.
OUR FAVORITE BITS
- The history and evidence of human occupation made it fun to explore.
- Easy, but interesting terrain.
- SOLITUDE: We saw only 1 other family hiking (a mom with 2 young kids, entering the trail as we left it).