Trail Love Letter: The Wild Oak Trail

AJW's Taproom

[Author’s Note: This is the 10th installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States.]

For Virginia’s ultrarunners training for big mountain races, the commonwealth boasts two fantastic training grounds. The first, The Priest and Three Ridges route on the Appalachian Trail, was the subject of my March Trail Love Letter. The second, the Wild Oak Trail, is one of the burliest loops on the entire U.S. East Coast.

AJW Tap Room Trail Love Letter - Wild Oak Trail

A view of the valley below The Wild Oak Trail. Photo: Ben Wyrick

Measuring just over 28 miles and featuring over 8,000 feet of climbing, the Wild Oak Trail, known to the locals simply as TWOT, is a beast of a trail. The Grindstone 100 Mile in September traverses a 12-mile section of TWOT and goes both up and down the seven-mile, 3,400-foot Little Bald Knob. A more low key race, actually two races, has racers cover four loops of TWOT for one of the most challenging 100-plus-mile races there is. The Hot TWOT Run, held in October, is coming up in a few weeks, and the (cold) TWOT Run, held in February, are always among the most challenging events on the local calendar. These races have achieved an almost cult-like status as they pack in over 36,000 feet of climbing into about 112 miles. The events also hold longer and shorter races, too.

Most folks start and finish the loop at the TWOT lot, a small parking lot along the North River about 30 minutes from downtown Harrisonburg and just a few miles from the West Virginia border. While one can run the loop in either direction, most choose the counterclockwise route as it allows them to get the Little Bald Knob climb out of the way early and also allows them to ascend Big Bald Knob in the less steep direction. Taking the route clockwise means you have to climb Big Bald from the steep side, meaning you climb 2,400 feet in just over two miles.

I spoke to local runner Ben Wyrick, a three-time Hardrock 100 finisher, about the route and his preferred direction. “My preferred direction is counterclockwise because the daunting climb up Little Bald is right there to kick your butt at the start of the loop.” Wyrick, a veteran of the Hot TWOT Run — which he is running again this year — goes on to say, “TWOT is a huge challenge because you know how hard it is going to be. What keeps me heading out for my second, third, and fourth loops is to test myself against the extreme isolation and the grueling distances between resupply points.”

AJW Trail Love Letter - The Wild Oaks Trail

The deep woods of the Wild Oak Trail. Photo: Ben Wyrick

Finally, Wyrick, who reckons he has completed more than 50 loops of TWOT over the years has this to say about what keeps him coming back. “I’d say the best thing about the Wild Oak Trail are the few-and-far-between glimpses into the distance you get that show you where you will be in a few hours, or where you were a few hours ago. It puts everything in perspective.”

For runners in the eastern half of the United States, there are not many places to find long, steep, sustained climbs on rocky, unstable terrain. However, the Wild Oak Trail, deep in the heart of George Washington National Forest, is certainly one such place. In fact, I think for any North American long distance mountain trail runner, a loop of TWOT deserves a spot on their bucket list.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Just up the road from the TWOT lot is Basic City Beer in Waynesboro, Virginia. Known for their delicious small batch beers, their Vienna style lager, The Hornig, is a classic take on this ancient variety. Honey hued and slightly sweet, this balanced lager is a perfect all-day beer and would go well with just about any food, especially barbecue.

Call for Comments

In December, we’ll publish a reader-submitted trail love letter, so we want to hear from you! Contact us with a short love letter about your favorite trail – international trails are especially welcomed.