A Wild Garden
by Royster Lyle
RACC Board Member
About ten years ago, as most everyone in these parts can recall, a good portion of House Mountain came on the market--and suddenly there was a vigorous campaign waged to buy the nine-hundred or so acres and preserve them for future generations to enjoy.
Actually, past generations of County folks had already been enjoying the two mountain peaks and the saddle while it was in private hands--in the hands of several mountain families who were happy for local hikers, hunters, and students to climb all over the place. No-trespassing signs were rare, and most felt that the mountain--the most prominent landmark in the area, visible from all ends of the County--was about as public as land could get.
But times were changing in the late 1980's and there was well-founded fear that development pressure in the House Mountain area would end the noble tradition of being able to climb House Mountain any time you wanted.
So, some meetings were held, some plans were laid, and a fund-raising campaign was launched by a county-wide committee led by the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council (RACC) to purchase all the lands available on the mountain. The success of the campaign is well known--thousands of contributions came in from area residents, former residents, county school children, alumni of the several colleges, and friends of our community from all over the country.
The property is now owned by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a State agency, and managed by a local group called the House Mountain Management Committee, charged with seeing that the trail to the saddle and the two peaks is properly looked after and that the whole area is open and available to anyone who wants to take an afternoon's healthy walk into one of the most interesting places in the County.
Last year, a writer for the Roanoke Times called the House Mountain climb one of his "favorite Four" in the state. He added, "This hike will reward your efforts with one of the finest all-around views of autumn in Virginia." We must add that the hike is also rewarding any month of the year, with the exception, perhaps, of the two weeks of rifle deer season.
How to get there: From Lexington, west on Route 60 about two miles to the Jacktown Road where turn left and continue 3.5 miles to Saddle Ridge Road. Take a right and up the hill about a quarter of a mile to the end of the state maintained road. Here you can park along the road--being careful not to block the several driveways there. The trail is straight ahead, and the saddle is just about two miles up. (There is also a primitive parking area about half a mile up the trail, if you care to risk your oil pan on the stones. The high clearance--and traction--of a four wheel drive vehicle are advised for this half mile).
When you reach the Saddle, you're in for a treat--not for the view especially (if you want a view, you have another climb ahead of you), but because there is nothing else in Rockbridge County quite like the Saddle: tucked between two imposing mountain peaks you'll find an old abandoned apple orchard and a sort of a pasture--overgrown to a large degree in some parts, but still a small grassy meadow.
Today, the orchard and pasture are only a fraction of their earlier twenty-five acres, but the Management Committee plans to re-open perhaps as many as ten acres, and return the whole to its pleasant state of five or six decades ago.
The plan includes clearing the young locusts and other inappropriate trees that have intruded and to rehabilitate the apple trees, some ancient, some recent volunteers, and save most of the well-shaped or well-placed sugar maples, dogwoods, redbuds, and clusters of wild plums, sassafras, and persimmons. Special attention is being given to trees and shrubs that are useful for wildlife. The goal is to maintain the meadow with an eye toward encouraging the return of the tall summer flowers and grasses that attract butterflies and songbirds and created such a special place.
The Saddle now has a wooden shelter for camping and a number of primitive campsites. No other "improvements" are planned. There is also a convenient spring. A hike from camp up to the back peak--called Big House Mountain--takes about forty minutes, where the views from the 3,600 foot summit are spectacular.
As can be expected, most of the trees on the slopes of House Mountain are also found in the surrounding mountains. A recent inventory by the Virginia Department of Forestry noted black, red, white, and chestnut oak, hickory, yellow poplar, sugar maple, cucumber (which I don't know), among others.
One of my favorites is the striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). The bark of the young tree is conspicuously marked by long, vertical, greenish-white stripes. As the tree matures, the trunk loses its pronounced striping, but it continues on the smaller limbs. Because it is among the first to appear after a forest has been cut over and can become a nuisance, foresters liken this attractive tree to the ailanthus. (Both are oriental aliens, the maple introduced to our eastern mountains by the settlers.) But despite its bad reputation in some circles, the striped maple is to me a special tree.
Another favorite tree on the mountain is the table mountain pine (Pinus pungens) which has spiney cones in clusters along its horizontal branches. This stout, tough tree that can well manage the unfriendly winter weather is found on the higher elevations.
Of special interest to the hiker on the mountain will be sprouts from the stumps of the American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata). This is about all you'll see of the former chestnut forest that once covered the County's mountains. Early in this century, a blight, the fungus Endothia parasitica, took out the entire population in the east, and all that remain are some clusters of root sprouts that valiantly return every season from the long gone parent tree.
Several years ago, the sprouts of one stump along the trail road about halfway up the mountain reached over ten feet, but the blight, still prevalent, struck; the sprouts died back, and the roots had to try again the next spring. But there are plenty of other, lesser attempts to see.
If you haven't already climbed the mountain yet, mark your calendar for a day in April or May. Just the wildflowers are worth the trip. Last year, there were pink lady's-slippers right on the trail.