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Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trail--Booker T. Washington National Monument

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Hike stats: 2.18 miles, 220' elevation gain, 1:00:36 moving time, 12/12/2020 (and again 12/22/2020)

Link to data at the end of the post (click the AllTrails screen capture image of the route).

This trail is located at the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy, VA. Well, it has a Hardy address, but it's near the area the people who live here call Westlake Corner. This is a loop trail named for the small waterway ("branch") that it parallels for most of it's length. This trail is a short lollipop loop and is a combination of beaten ground as well as gravel that the park service has brought in to stabilize the trail from erosion after recent flooding in the area several weeks ago. It is wide enough to accommodate park service trucks to use to access for trail and site maintenance so walking two abreast in most places is comfortable except when meeting other hikers. Leashed dogs are allowed on this trail, so don't be surprised if you meet some with their human companions. I have yet to walk this trail without meeting at least one dog. I get along with dogs as well as I get along with cats, so no problems for me. I do, however, realize that is not the case for everyone. "A word to the wise is sufficient."

The trail starts and ends at the visitor center which is currently closed to the public due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, the grounds are still open and the outdoor interpretive signage is interesting and well-done. Follow the beaten path to the right of the sign and around the building and you will see the livestock displays (they have sheep, a horse, a hog, some ducks, and some chickens) and the remaining historic buildings from the plantation (I'm unsure if these are the original buildings or if they have been recreated, but it is a good interactive education site when it isn't shut down to protect the public.

The sidewalk (and trail) splits with the left path taking you to the animal pens and forward to the buildings (which include a lovely herb garden in the back. We've gone both routes and it doesn't make a substantive difference as the trails on either side of the branch rejoin shortly at a tobacco barn just in the woods.

After the junction with the portion of the trail that went by the livestock pens, the trail heads deeper into the woods along Jack-O-Lantern Branch. Just after the tobacco barn is a junction with a park service road to the right (AllTrails shows it as a spur trail but it is restricted to park personnel only). Keep going straight ahead at this junction--the way forward is obvious.

The next junction (to the right as you start the trail) is the return portion of the loop. The park's intent is for you to continue straight along the creek--the trail signage is angled to make that obvious--but taking the right path and taking the loop counter-clockwise and away from the branch means you can do the big elevation gain early. Personally, I have taken it both directions and I prefer to take the climb first. Once you top the ridge the trail crosses a field for about a hundred yards before reentering the forest. (Note that the sign in this picture is angled for taking the loop clockwise, as is the sign where the trail reenters the forest ahead.)

The next junction is to the east (left if you are going counter-clockwise) and is a shortcut-trail to shorten the loop. I have no idea why anyone would use the shortcut since taking it means not taking the best part of this trail...but to each their own. I don't recall but I don't think there is any signage at this junction with the shortcut trail and I cannot comment on the shortcut as I've not walked it. At the Sparks Cemetery the trail turns to the right and goes down hill to Gills Creek (which is considerably larger and deeper than Jack-O-Lantern Branch).

(click image above for short video)

The Gills Creek section of this hike is the highlight of this hike in my opinion. The flooding we had several weeks ago had some serious effects on the banks of Gills Creek in this area. In the first half of this section the bank between the trail and the creek for this 400'-500' section of trail has been undercut and several trees have fallen into the creek (and some washed downstream). From what I could tell, the undercut is not severe enough to make the trail dangerous at this time but hikers should be cautious about going off-trail between the trail and the creek (note the undercut banks in the image and video above).

The second half of this section is on the inside of a curve so the flooding effects are the opposite--there is a huge sandbar built up from the water to the park boundary at the trail's edge. The sand is quite deep and has been there long enough to have killed some of the trees. The recent flooding only added to the sand here and undercut the far bank (outside of the curve).

The trail does a short climb at this point to cross the ridge. This is the same ridge we climbed earlier to take the loop counter-clockwise but at this point it is not nearly as high as Jack-O-Lantern Branch flows down to join Gills Creek. The confluence of the two streams is not easily visible from the trail as it crosses the ridge to follow the branch back to the plantation. The trail along this lower part of the branch shows some damage from the recent flooding, but the park has brought in some gravel to reinforce it. Jack-O-Lantern Branch is a lively little stream with lots of drops over rocks and downed trees. There are several places where the recent flooding has changed the branch's course. It is interesting to see the effects of the power of rushing water.

After crossing the ridge at the bottom of the loop, it is an easy but steady upward grade back to the trailhead at the visitor center. There is at least one educational/ interpretive sign tying the trail to Booker T. Washington, who credited his love for the outdoors to much of his strength and ability.

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