Rich Hole Wilderness, VA

Moderators: edfrank, dbhguru

Post Reply
Darian Copiz
Posts: 23
Joined: Wed Mar 24, 2010 8:52 pm

Rich Hole Wilderness, VA

Post by Darian Copiz » Thu Aug 27, 2015 7:14 pm

Last fall (October 2014), I visited Rich Hole Wilderness. This is the same location that Ranger Dan had visited about 2 and half years earlier, and I used his report to point me in the right direction. I didn’t cover as much ground as he did, but I can contribute pictures, a few measurements (as notes under pictures), and some additional detail about the site.
A 12' 6" cbh Quercus rubra with a yellow canopy of Acer saccharum.
A 12' 6" cbh Quercus rubra with a yellow canopy of Acer saccharum.
Rich Hole received wilderness designation in 1988. However, prior to this, 1,326 acres of rich cove (or rich hole) forest in the area was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1974. The National Park Service page for this landmark describes it as being virgin forest. Although I haven’t found any maps of the landmark, presumably it corresponds to the series of coves on the northwest side of Brushy Mountain, north of where the ridgeline jogs to the east. Access is through the saddle between the two segments of this ridgeline. As Dan describes, there is a clearing on the saddle where there used to be a house or cabin.

The clearing is a remnant of past disturbance. There was additional past major disturbance along the base of the eastern slope of the ridge. A series of iron mines and cuts were active there from the early 1800s into the early 1900s. Associated with these mines, were charcoal production facilities and iron furnaces, with the closest furnace located to the southwest at Longdale Furnace. The demand for wood in charcoal production would have denuded much of area, with the most accessible locations probably being cut several times. These furnaces supplied the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, coke was used in iron production, possibly with a resultant diminished logging pressure on the surrounding forests.
This map is from U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1667, "Mineral Resources of the Rich Hole Roadless Area, Alleghany and Rockbridge Counties, Virginia" by Frank G. Lesure, 1987.
This map is from U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1667, "Mineral Resources of the Rich Hole Roadless Area, Alleghany and Rockbridge Counties, Virginia" by Frank G. Lesure, 1987.
My wife and I hiked up the trail to the saddle between the two ridgelines of Brushy Mountain, and descended down the long cove northeast of this saddle. We skirted along the slope on the east side of the cove. At the end of the cove, the going got tougher, with rocky ground, and increased brush. That is where we decided to turn around. My wife isn’t a fan of bushwhacking, and I was already impressed she had gone so far. We headed back up the small stream draining the cove. The soil along the swale of the cove and on the lower slopes was dark and rich, but becomes rockier, drier, and apparently more acidic as one goes up toward the ridgeline of Brushy Mountain. Based on geologic/mineral maps, the ridgeline is sandstone of the Rose Hill formation. The maps don’t provide close detail, but it would appear the rich soil in the coves may be derived from Martinsburg Shale, which can include limestone and calcareous shale.
Map is from USGS, with labels added.
Map is from USGS, with labels added.
The trees, downed wood, and sprouting vegetation all indicated a relatively recent fire. Looking this up later, there had been a major fire here in 2012. The fire had occurred in April, just a month after Dan’s report. The incident map for the fire shows that it originated in the area of coves and spread to burn over 3,000 acres, including jumping over Interstate 64. From what I saw, it fortunately appeared to have been a ground fire, and most of the large trees were in relatively good condition. Hopefully, this was the case for the other coves to the northeast as well. An observer of the fire, commenting online, mentioned it was the third fire they had observed in the Rich Hole area, seeing the first one as a kid, and the second one as a teenager.
The Rich Hole Fire started on April 12, 2012, and during a period of 5 days spread to cover over 3,000 acres. The map is from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
The Rich Hole Fire started on April 12, 2012, and during a period of 5 days spread to cover over 3,000 acres. The map is from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
The forest in the long cove was fairly open, with a sparse understory. This may be why my wife bushwhacked without complaint. As mentioned, the growth became denser and more brushy toward the end of the cove where the small stream turns west to meet Alum Run. As Dan reported, Quercus rubra is the most common species. Acer saccharum was also common, and is responsible for most of the yellow coloration in the photographs. I observed Fraxinus americana mostly at the head of the cove. Other species were Tilia americana and Ulmus americana, also at the head of the cove – possibly this is the area where the soils are richest. There were many large girthed red oaks. I did not take any height measurements, partly because of time constraints, but also because the heights did not look impressive. I would guess at maximum tree heights in the cove of around 120 feet. Some of the larger oaks may have only been around 100 feet. However, I would have to actually measure to confirm this – maybe I would be surprised.

I did not get the impression that this cove consisted of virgin forest. It was adjacent to the settled area of the saddle, and is reasonably accessible to what had been the mining area just to the east. That being said, I did not see any cut stumps. I think this cove was probably at least selectively logged in the mid to latter part of the 19th century, but may not have seen much disturbance since then. I would guess that the older trees may be around 150 years old.
Fraxinus ameriana with Acer saccharum behind growing at the head of the cove.
Fraxinus ameriana with Acer saccharum behind growing at the head of the cove.
Tilia americana, I believe the trunk in the background is a chestnut
Tilia americana, I believe the trunk in the background is a chestnut
The tree was dead, but still recognizable as a red oak. It measured 13' 11" cbh.
The tree was dead, but still recognizable as a red oak. It measured 13' 11" cbh.
My wife at the base of the largest red oak we saw in the cove. The tree measured  16' 1" cbh.
My wife at the base of the largest red oak we saw in the cove. The tree measured 16' 1" cbh.
Ulmus americana at the head of the cove.
Ulmus americana at the head of the cove.
A 12' 7" cbh white ash at the head of the cove.
A 12' 7" cbh white ash at the head of the cove.
Based on the aerial photography and on the topography, it seems that the smaller, more northern coves may be where the real promise lies. Due to the relative inaccessibility and because of large canopies and gaps on the aerials, these appear to have to have a greater likelihood of being virgin forest. I had wanted to return to explore at least one or two of these over the winter, but wasn’t able to. I am curious how far Dan got – at which cove/saddle he turned around. I aim to return, maybe this winter.
The stream running through the cove, with sugar maple and red oak behind.
The stream running through the cove, with sugar maple and red oak behind.
Last edited by Darian Copiz on Mon Sep 07, 2015 4:28 pm, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
Larry Tucei
Posts: 2017
Joined: Tue Mar 09, 2010 10:44 am

Re: Rich Hole Wilderness

Post by Larry Tucei » Fri Aug 28, 2015 8:08 am

Darian- Great report and the photos are really good. What a beautiful setting- so much color! The big Oak with your wife is awesome. The bark is showing signs of an old tree. What species was that? Beautiful! Larry

User avatar
Ranger Dan
Posts: 120
Joined: Thu Mar 25, 2010 3:45 pm

Re: Rich Hole Wilderness

Post by Ranger Dan » Sat Aug 29, 2015 8:55 am

Excellent, Darian! I have been wanting to return to the Rich Hole area to do some more crosscountry exploring. Be in touch with me if you would like to see the best area of old growth I found. There may be more beyond my point of return on the last trip. I would like to see more documentation of Fraxinus, considering that emerald ash borer may soon eradicate them.

Dan Miles

User avatar
Josh Kelly
Posts: 127
Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2010 6:13 pm

Re: Rich Hole Wilderness

Post by Josh Kelly » Sun Aug 30, 2015 10:21 am

Great Post, Darian!

I've had the pleasure of working a little bit on George Washington and Jefferson National Forests over the past few years. There seems to be a good amount of old-growth hardwood forest on these public lands. The Ridge and Valley Province is much drier than the Southern Blue Ridge, and the trees don't generally get as tall or large there, but the character of the forest is fantastic.

I love the geologic details and historical information you provide with your report. Great stuff!

Josh

Post Reply

Return to “Virginia”