The snow! The rock hops! The blue sky! They make Hoop Hole a winter treat.
It is serendipitous how a family tradition becomes established. Something occurs one time, someone says, “let’s do that again,” and soon it becomes an eagerly anticipated, and expected, event.
Such is the case with our annual winter trek on the Jefferson National Forest’s Hoop Hole trail system in Craig County. Laurie and I so enjoyed our hike that we now look forward to snow blanketing the ground and hanging heavy on drooping hemlock boughs so that we can duplicate our first cold-weather outing there.
There are two intersecting loop trails at Hoop Hole. The shorter, more moderate, four-mile pathway stays at a fairly low elevation to pass through two deep and narrow creek gorges, while winding in and out of rhododendron tunnels and mountain laurel thickets. The longer, 9.2-mile trail makes use of most of the lower route as it climbs 1,700 feet higher on the southeastern slope of Rich Patch Mountain.
Make sure you understand the scope of this hike before you head out. Both routes have rough and rocky footing, and require you to cross streams more than 10 times, something that might be welcome in summer, but can become cold and possibly dangerous in winter. Use walking sticks for balance and wear sturdy boots with good tread on them because the steep, rocky, and slippery ascents become more so with several inches of snow on them. The upper route, which is hard to follow in places, is lightly used in summer and rarely trod in winter. This provides a wonderful sense of isolation, but means you are responsible for your own safety as it is unlikely you will meet anyone else.
Leave the parking area by taking the blazed trail to the left, pass by a bulletin board, and come to an intersection in less than 500 feet. Since this is a loop hike, you could go in either direction, but I always bear left, because with slippery snow on the ground, I would rather encounter the steepest terrain on the ascent rather than the descent.
Wintergreen creeping along the forest floor, rhododendron and mountain laurel at eye level, and hemlock branches growing above insure that, even though you are walking during the coldest months of the year, the woodlands will have a greenish hue. Sounds of the modern world are blocked out as you descend into narrow Hipes Branch gorge, where the stream tumbles over boulders and into large pools.
A pile of rusting machinery parts is about all that remains from the region’s logging days, when giant trees were cut into barrel staves known as “hoop poles.” Say these two words in quick succession a number of times and you’ll know how the area came to be called “Hoop Hole.”
It’s decision time when you come to an intersection two miles into the hike. The pathway to the right is the shorter loop that would bring you back to your car in another two miles. Stay left for the more adventurous trek, which soon crosses the headwaters of Hipes Branch and climbs at a steady rate along the west side of Bald Knob. The going can be tough for the next few miles as the trail crosses one boulder field after another, making it hard to discern just exactly where the route goes, especially when covered in snow.
However, there are rewards for crossing this terrain at this time of year. Leafless trees permit views across ridgeline after ridgeline receding toward the southeastern horizon. High cliffs, sometimes decorated by giant icicles tower above near the high point of the hike. Although you may never see the animals, tracks in the snow let you know just how heavily populated the forest is. I’ve come across the prints of black bears, deer, turkeys, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, mice, and several species of birds. Pass the Iron Ore Trail (it connects with the Roaring Run Trail 2.4 miles to the east) at 6.3 miles. The gradual descent becomes decidedly steeper when you enter Stony Run gorge. Cross the stream seven times before returning to your car at 9.2 miles and ending this outing that may become a family tradition for you, too.
Getting there: Take I-81 Exit 150 (a few miles north of Roanoke), drive US 220 north for 20.5 miles, turn left onto VA 615, and make a right into the parking area in another 7.8 miles.
Total length: 4 miles for the shorter hike; 9.2 miles on the longer one.
Difficulty: Moderate for the shorter; strenuous for the longer.
Nearby after-hike treat: Warm up with a bowl of brown beans and a chunk of homemade corn bread at Maw and Paw’s Diner in Eagle Rock, just across the James River from US 220.