The word “Wilderness,” a Congressional designation essentially meaning “untrammeled by man,” is not quickly associated with Virginia. But the fact is Virginia is home to 24 Wilderness areas, and most are within, or a stone’s throw from, the Shenandoah Valley. Ramsey’s Draft, about 20 miles west of Staunton is one such area.
“Draft” is an old-timer’s term for creek or stream, and the trout stream that runs through this 6,577-acre wilderness gave the area its name. (Serious fly fishermen can still usually count on native brook trout in the six- to eight-inch range.) The area lies on the east side of Shenandoah Mountain and is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
About 24 miles of steep, mountainous trails wind through vast stands of hemlocks and a variety of hardwoods, providing excellent hiking experiences. Trails often cross the stream, as they do through most of the Valley, and traversing Ramsey’s Draft in winter is not for the faint of heart. But those who hike here invariably talk of the scenery and solitude in reverent tones. Wildlife species hikers may encounter include black bears, whitetail deer, and eastern turkeys. Hunting is popular here, especially in deer and bear season.
Trails in Ramsey’s Draft are maintained (with crosscut saws and other hand tools) by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club– Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter.
Lynn Cameron, a volunteer with the Chapter, told us, “Our club has actually been doing 1,000-2,000 hours of volunteer work on Shenandoah Mountain trails for the past several years, and much of this has been done in Ramsey’s Draft. The old growth hemlock in Ramsey’s Draft became infested with the Hemlock wooly adelgid in the 1990s. Most of these giants died, and many fell across the trails creating large obstacles for hikers. Our club has been working to remove these this past year. Some were as large as 34 inches in diameter. The trails in Ramsey’s Draft are in better shape now than they have been for years.
“Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) has also been working in Ramsey’s Draft this year,” Cameron continued. “This past summer they led an eight-day work-trip with three U.S. Naval Academy mid-shipmen in the most remote part of the Wilderness.”
One historical point of interest in the area is the Confederate Breastworks Interpretive Trail. (A breastwork is a temporary fort.) Civil War action took place here in 1862 when Confederate soldiers built a fort and defensive trenches under the command of Brigadier General Edward Johnson. Signage along the trail provides plenty of background on the troop movements.
It’s important to remember that Wilderness designation is designed to protect the natural conditions of an area and minimize human impacts. What you can take into a Wilderness area differs a lot from a national forest, for example.
Wilderness areas strictly prohibit mechanical means of transportation. Things like motor vehicles, motorcycles, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, and portage wheels are NOT ALLOWED. What is allowed includes foot travel, backpacking, horseback riding, canoeing and climbing. But even the size of your group may be regulated in Wilderness–in Ramsey’s Draft, parties are limited to 10 or fewer people, and other regulations may apply as well.
Directions: From Washington, DC/Northern Virginia–Take I-66 west to I-81 south. At Staunton, Virginia, pick up Rt. 250 west to the Wilderness. A sign on the right side of the road clearly identifies the Wilderness Area, and there is a paved parking lot.
Photo courtesy Lynn Cameron, PATC