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Finding Smoke Hole Road, October 2010
Smoke Hole Road
I've been trying to get away for an overnight for a few weeks now and Thursday was the first opening where it wasn't raining cats and dogs or overcast and cold. I had thought about a long ride up to Wellsboro, PA but I had a nagging quest in the back of my mind, namely Smoke Hole Canyon, the very hidden and somewhat secret canyon formed by the lower tract of the Potomac River as it bisects the Seneca Rocks ridges enclosed by Routes 33 to the south, 28/55 to the west and north, and 220 to the east. There is a road, Smoke Hole Road, that goes right through and some 20 years or so ago I tried it when I was out looking for new fishing spots, it was in such frighteningly poor shape I had to turn around barely a mile in.
Map - http://tinyurl.com/2dbnems
I'd since heard about the road once or twice but nobody had seemed to have been there or could tell me if the road had been paved. Google Maps street view was worthless but the manager of the Big Bend campground, the National Forest Campground along the river nestled in the middle of the Canyon, said it was now paved and further that there were plenty of spots for the (last) night. That was all I needed - I quickly packed up the bike and was off by 2pm.
And made it as far as Manassas before the traffic started - paving on I-66. The fan and clutch on the K75RT both got quite a workout, and just shy of 4pm I was finally on the historic Rt. 55 west. Rt. 55 is a legendary road, it jumps over peaks, rounds solid rock faces and has nice long runs along rivers. About 10 years ago Robert Byrd decided it would be a great idea to make much of this leg a super highway, from Petersburg WV east to the WV/VA line where it returns to "just" Rt. 55. It is strange to have a normal 2-lane US Highway suddenly become a divided super highway, then just go right back to a 2-lane, but I have learned that Highway projects in West Virginia don't (well I guess "didn't with Byrd's passing) always make much sense. As is most often not the case however they built around and over Old Rt. 55, thankfully preserving its awesomeness.
I avoided most of the highway and truly enjoyed the now empty Old Rt. 55, stopping to snap a picture of See's Motel in Wardensville. See's has been in the same family since 1933 when Rt. 55 was the only way to reach much of the interior of West Virginia. The old lady that ran the place refused to rent a room to Elizabeth and Me back, holy cow maybe 12 or 14 years ago, because we weren't married. I could swear she was still there, out front smoking a cigarette. I did stop in Petersburg at a 7-11 to pick up a bottle of Maker's Mark and some munchies.
I took Rt. 55 all the way to Seneca Rocks, to make sure the Motel was open should the road not be passable. I doubled back the 10 or so miles to Smoke Hole Road, which didn't bother me a bit because Rt. 55 is just a tremendous road. I turned right onto the 1 and a half lane though nicely paved Smoke Hole road and quickly ascended in between two sharp ridges leaving the outside world behind. Smoke Hole road is in a word, amazing. Wow, what a road! The scenery is astounding, the road itself reminded me of a mini Blue Ridge Parkway with lots of gentle but tight, banked curves, a lot of elevation changes, and basically one non-stop scenic view of ridges and valleys.
After some time I came to the turn off to the campground and started down. After about 200 yards it suddenly turned to a hard-packed dirt and gravel road. It wasn't too bad though and the K75RT took it with aplomb. After about a mile in the road heads down a steep hill and the road turned to hard embedded rock, it was a bit hairy but I stayed off the brakes using the engine instead and made it without a problem. About a mile further, right at the sign for the campground, the road turned back into brand new, beautiful pavement and ran along the lower tract of the Potomac river on one side, following the curving and sheer ridge line on the other side. The river was incredibly clear, so clear I could easily see fish on the bottom 15 feet down.
I pulled into the campground to find it completely empty. The manager mentioned there were only two other spots taken, one a group of people on a canoe trip and the other two BMW Airhead riders one of whom was waiting for a new alternator to arrive. Interestingly enough, it is completely booked for the weekend. It was getting dark at this point so I quickly paid the $25 camping fee - for the spot plus a huge bundle of fire wood, delivered right to the fire ring! Thanks to the Emerald Ash Borer beetle you can only buy firewood at the campsite, I didn't mind it was excellent wood and lots of it for only $5. The Campground itself is one of the nicer ones I have come across, I was next to a grassy glade, had a big parking area and a clean tent pad.
In the 10 minutes it took me to change into shorts and Keens, put up the tent and blow up the mattress, it went from light to dark. Being in between two high and steep ridges is sure noticeable when the sun drops behind them! I got the fire going, boiled up some water and had a cup of tea and a bag of Mountain Harvest Lasagna - highly rated by the way, much better than the chicken and rice. After a nice bourbon and ice cold water from the spring and a good cigar it was time for bed. When I switched off the LED headlight I was astounded, the sky was ALIVE with stars, planes, satellites, and shooting stars. It was easily as clear as the clearest night in Maine, so I kicked back in the field and had another bourbon and just watched.
I finally packed it in (around 9pm LoL) and decided to see how my 50-degree bag would work in 40-degree weather. Not well. Luckily I brought my 20-degree bag as well and used it as a blanket. Nice and toasty warm I drifted off to a sound sleep. Until 4:35am. I awoke with a start. Someone was moving outside the tent near the bike. Crap! I threw open the tent flap ready to catch one of the canoe teens going through my things when I came face to face with ... a bear. We looked at each other for a few seconds and I said, "Boo!" With that it trotted off and I went back to sleep. I woke up again just as the sky was starting to show light, made some coffee and listened to the forest come alive. At one point a HUGE owl flew low through the glade, it was completely silent, even while flapping it didn't make even a whisper.
As I was cleaning my glasses the stem fell off, the screw was missing. Crap! With no chance of finding it I stowed the glasses resolving to bring a spare pare next time. I broke camp and was packed up by 7:30am, and gave the site a once-over to see if I had missed anything. What is that? Lying on a rock on the ground next to the picnic table, was the screw! Smaller than a tiny thistle seed, what were the odds! I screwed it back into the glasses and mounted up. As I rode along the dirt part of the road there was a heavy mist smoking off the river but the sky was crystal clear and the sun was lighting the leaves at the tops of the ridge lines like a fire. I took a bit of video because I wanted to remember, it was incredible.
The ride home was a mishmash of roads I enjoy - Rt. 33 up and over the mountains and down the long, tree-lined stretch to the outskirts of Harrisonburg. I first came across this stretch of road years and years ago returning from a long roadtrip to visit my brother in Alabama, it has been a foavorite strech of road for me ever since. Here is some video:
From Rt. 33 I turned onto Rt. 42, a wonderful valley road that meanders along 300 year old farms and homesteads, then a short hop over to another favorite of mine, Rt. 678 through Fort Valley. This all but forgotten road also meanders along a deep valley lined by high, steep ridges on both sides at some points and broad farms at others. The Civillian Conservation Corps had several camps here in the 1930's that supplied me to the building of Skyline Drive. From there I stopped in Front Royal for some coffee and a pastry at the downtown independent coffee shop on Main Street, then mounted up and ran over to the ever awesome Mt. Weather EOC road.
From there I got back on I-66. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson! More and more traffic, more fan, and something new - the fuel pump honked every once in a while I am guessing from the heat and low fuel, and I caught the whiff of gas more than once. Surprisingly once inside the beltway things cleared up and it was clear sailing home (where I immediately took a shower LoL).
All in all, a great trip! One quest finally solved, one great old road ridden, and some more miles on my REI tent :)
© 1995-2016, Ted Verrill