Tales from the Trail: Piney River & Beyond

Photo By: Rick Stowe

My trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains with the 2022 Ultimate Overland Build started as the remnants of Hurricane Ian made their way through western Virginia. The normally sunny temperate days were replaced by a weekend of dreary skies, rain, and gusty winds. 

This trip was strange in a few ways. For starters, I had hoped to head up into the mountains for some early fall foliage, but the high winds caused several roads and camping areas to be closed due to downed trees. Second, I normally venture out with a friend or my wife, but this trip saw me riding solo as I worked my way through an alternate route tracing the valleys and rivers of the region and learning the features of the well equipped AT4X. Lastly, we moved to the area earlier in the year and I’m constantly looking for new campsites to run away to on a free weekend. I was hopeful to find some hidden gems so I could drop a few waypoints to revisit on future trips. 

Photo by Rick Stowe

Photo by Rick Stowe

Since my original plan wasn’t working out, I decided to seize the opportunity to explore a few sections of the region I had yet to see. With a hasty plan that linked together forest roads, rural gravel, dispersed camping, and a healthy dose of leeway for changes, I fueled up and headed into the mountains. 

While many think that the eastern half of the country is devoid of overlanding opportunities, 12 million acres of national forest land lie in the eastern portion of the country. Many of these areas are criss-crossed by miles of forest roads that range from graded gravel to muddy and narrow tracks through the woodlands. Of that expanse, 1.6 million acres lie inside of Virginia divided between the Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Most of this area is within an hour or so of Overland Expo East, and offers not only opportunities for overland adventures, but also hiking, fishing, mountain biking, and more.

Big Piney 

Photo by Rick Stowe

Photo by Rick Stowe

The first portion of my trip was intended to serve some selfish purposes. I had heard the Piney River held some promising trout waters, and some friends and I plan to test that theory in Spring. Since I was in the area I decided to take a trip up Big Piney Road. It parallels the main stream of the Piney and the western fork further upstream for most of its length. This was a mild forest road, but the stream provided plenty of distraction. I was tempted to burn a few hours on the water, but the recent rains had flows high so I only stopped to toss a fly in a few spots. 

While it wasn’t exactly trophy fishing, I did tempt a few rainbows to the net. I’m sure in the Spring, especially during a hatch, the fish would be a bit more cooperative. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful drive that offers plenty of opportunities to try your hand at catching a few of the elusive trout that call these mountain streams home. 

Hog Camp

Photo by Rick Stowe

Photo by Rick Stowe

A little further up the mountain I picked up Hog Camp Road. Initially it was just as tame as Piney River, but as I made my way out the track it slowly transitioned to a two-track. Hurricane Ian’s rain wasn’t necessarily down pour, but as I progressed up the route I found the low spots had collected plenty of moisture. On one particular section, a rut had collected some water, but the real concern was silica-rich mud you often find in this part of Virginia. Standing in this mud can be a challenge if even the slightest slope is present. 

On this section of the trail, the downhill edge was composed of soft dirt before dropping into a gully below. Since I was traveling solo I decided to place some preemptive insurance against any unwanted sliding. With a the Go-Treads in place, I eased forward, and after the initial sink into the mud the truck pulled through with no problem. 

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After a few more miles I pulled into a wide spot along the road to post up for the night. I hadn’t seen another vehicle in hours, so I wasn’t too worried about finding a secluded spot. I threw the swag out and pulled my fire pit from the Mitts storage area. Within a few minutes I was ready for dinner, and considering this was a solo trip I took the easy route of a quick sandwich before turning in. Throughout the night the occasional acorn would drop from oaks and bounce off the canvas of the swag. Otherwise it was an uneventful and restful night. 

Parker Gap

The next morning I got back on the road and visited one of my favorite routes on the north side of the Blue Ridge range. Parker Gap starts just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway and winds down the mountain passing Apple Orchard Falls trailhead. I parked the GMC and took off on foot to explore the area and stretch my legs. Even this far up the mountain the small streams were running high, and I immediately regretted leaving my fly rod in the truck.

Photo by Rick Stowe

Photo by Rick Stowe

After an hour of checking out the hollow around Parker Gap, I decided to make my way back up the mountain, and stopped at an overlook to check in at home and touch base with some friends. The WeBoost helped with the notoriously spotty service and I was able to make some plans for the rest of the trip.

Home Turf

Photo by Rick Stowe

That afternoon I headed further south towards Roanoke, Virginia. A buddy wanted to check out the truck, and another friend offered up his land for a camp spot for the night. His property happens to include a huge planted pine forest, and I was thankful for the chance to spend the last night of the trip in the literal middle of nowhere. 

On the way to camp I visited a local stream and tossed a few poppers and dry flies into an eddy. Insects of all kinds buzzed through the sun beams shining through the trees. Within a couple of casts one of the region’s beautiful sunfish was tempted out from its hiding spot. I released it back into the cool waters, and headed towards my final camp of the trip.

At my friend’s property my buddy brought out his drone and we spent an hour driving through the network of logging roads and checking out potential campsites for the night. Even though the roads were rutted and soft, the GMC just went where we wanted to go without issue. While we were setting up a few more shots I decided to touch base with some of the Overland Expo Staff to let them know my ETA and see how preparation for the event was coming along. The ZOLEO satellite communicator made it easy to drop a text and check in before I called it a day. 

Photo by Rick Stowe

Photo by Rick Stowe

Photo by Rick Stowe

Photo by Rick Stowe

That night I backed the truck into a spot amongst the trees and pulled the awning out to enjoy the warm sun still breaking through the rows of pines. Even though we were officially into October, it felt more like a warm summer evening. A few crows darted through the trees as the sun set, but otherwise it was another quiet night and an early bedtime for me. 

Traveling Solo

As a pulled into Oak Ridge Estates to drop the 2022 Ultimate Build off for the final Overland Expo of the year I reflected on my trip. The GMC AT4X is without a doubt one of the most comfortable trucks I’ve ever driven. It easily edges out several models that are geared towards luxury, but at the same time, it’s incredibly capable off-road. While I didn’t exactly push the off-road capability, the truck never even strained through loose dirt, mud, or over washboard gravel at moderate speeds. On road it performed well, and it was easy to forget I was driving a full-sized off-road build. 

While I appreciated the solitude, as an unapologetic extrovert, I missed having someone to share the experiences with. I was also reminded of how difficult it is handle photo duty when you’re solo. Overall, it was great to explore my now home region in the 2022 Ultimate Overland Rig after seeing it make its way across the country from one Overland Expo to the next. 

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