Distance: 2.9 miles
Parking: A few spots at the trailhead at gravel end of England Mtn. Rd.
Pets: No pets
Note: As of 3/17, this trail is no longer open to the public.
A steep switchback trail up the side of the mountain gains you 500 ft. and access to this 655 acre nature preserve. Moss covered stone walls meander under old growth oak and hickory forests marking forgotten homesteads from the times of George Washington. The ruins of the Enoch Smith house stand near one of the oldest wagon roads in Virginia. The mountain lions are gone but keep your eyes open for bobcats, foxes, and the occasional black bear.
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If you’re driving south on US Route 17 from Marshall towards Warrenton, you likely will appreciate the rolling green and forested hills to your right. These are a series of peaks with names like Broken Leg Mountain, England Mountain, and Wildcat Mountain that make up part of the Rappahannock Range, foothills of the Blue Ridge pushing up into the northern Piedmont that have attracted more than the tired driver’s eye over the years. About 5 miles along, the 1200 fit summit of Wildcat Mtn. comes into view on the right. Early settlers pushing into what would become Fauquier County in the 18th century cobbled together homesteads on these slopes among the mountain lions, bears, foxes and myriad birds and mammals. Pristine stands of old growth beech, oak and American chestnut fell slowly to be replaced by small patches of cleared fields for cattle and farming, bordered by stacked walls recovered laboriously from the stony soil.
Most of these early pioneer families moved on after the Civil War, seeking gentler landscapes to cultivate, although a few farmers and loggers remained on Wildcat Mountain into the 20th century including the family of Enoch “Nuck” Smith who, still spry in 1902 at age 70, would ride his horse each week down the rocky trail to the Enon Baptist Church at the foot of Rappahannock Mountain. It must have been a sight in spring on the western slope when it was heavy with the blossoms of apple trees. But by the 1940s, even he was gone, having passed in 1915, and the vines multiplied and the stone walls disappeared into the fields they had once contained. In the 1960s, the Arundel family donated a large portion of Wildcat Mountain to the Nature Conservatory who maintain the looped trail on the plateau. Although many other trails crisscross the 655 acre area, make sure you stay on the guided trail as weak and bedraggled hikers have occasionally surprised neighbors after becoming lost and disoriented and wandering off the boundary.
The trailhead begins at the end of England Mountain Rd. on the west side of Wildcat Mountain. The pretty drive down the valley along Carter’s Run, west of I17, is worth the trip itself. England Mountain Rd. is a private paved driveway which you follow past a house on the left with a pond until it becomes a gravel track. Park on the right side at the kiosk and walk about 120 yards until the road ends in a ‘T’. Here, go to the right and walk to the end where the trailhead is marked on the left through a chain gate. Now it’s time to cinch up the boot straps, take a swig of energy paste, and tackle the half mile of steep switchbacks that lifts you above the valley. Stop at a few turns when you’re tired and appreciate the feeling of being in quiet air, far from the traffic of I66. Near the top you pop through a stone wall which joins the main loop of the trail. Turn to the left and proceed along with the wall on your left.
There are many stacked stone walls in the preserve. They were built by many different people at different times and served to contain fields, pen domestic animals, and hold back the forest. Fauquier County was carved from Prince William County in 1758 and some of these walls likely date from that time. Lord Fairfax needed bodies on the land granted him by Charles II and, it is said, he emptied the jails of England to populate the hills and valleys of northern Virginia. He wasn’t too militant with collecting taxes from them either, hence Wildcat Mountain being the eastern border of an area called the “Free State”. As you walk, the wall on your left separates the Conservancy from Hidden Valley Farm and the top of England Mountain rises to 900 feet just ahead.
Further on you cross a one acre clearing. The presence of periwinkle suggests human occupation. Volunteer Marvin Mitchell who has been involved with the preserve for over 30 years says he has been over the area with a metal detector and has not found so much as a nail. This would suggest that the clearing was not a homestead. The lack of gravestones goes against a cemetery. Mr. Mitchell conjectures it served as a bull pen to keep the bull separate from the herd. Notice the gap in the fence where the old wagon road came through to proceed along England Mountain ridge to the north. This was the only pass over the Rappahannock Range between Marshall and Warrenton.
When George Washington was surveying through Fairfax County, he would often take a small tract of the land he was surveying as payment. Like others in the know, he would select areas with an abundance of ‘spice bush’ as this was thought to indicate fertile land. The spice bush bears a small red berry that lends a ‘spicy’ flavor to foods and the foliage has a lemony scent when crushed. Keep your eyes out for these bushes along the trail here. The trail then turns East at a pile of rocks, probably the site of an old pasture, and along a fire road.
The road is the only one over Wildcat Mountain and may be one of the oldest roads in Virginia. Note the damns in the creek thought to be used for fish cultivation. Shortly after, you will come upon a reconstruction of an old spring house built after 1960. Watch out for snakes.
The Enoch Smith house was built around 1900. It was expanded in 1950 but empty 10 years later when the Nature Conservancy took it over. The remains of the original cabin built by Enoch Smith’s parents in 1830 sit behind the house consisting of a clay-mortared chimney. Enjoy the pond as you continue down the trail. The frogs do. In winter, tossing a rock onto the ice makes a noise like a ball bearing ricocheting off glass.
Proceed down the fire road another half mile or so until the trail leaves it to head west. That is, turn right, into the woods at this point. The top of Wildcat Mountain is at an elevation of 1300 feet behind you. It is not included in the preserve. The highest point of the trail is at about 1000 feet and it lies another 500 feet ahead. There is no view to speak of so you must imagine yourself staring out over the vast valley and congratulating your Sherpa.
Soon you intersect another stone wall which turns out to be the same one you encountered after coming up the mountain. Keep your eyes open for the gap in the wall that leads you back down the zig-zag path to the kiosk and parking area. Then you can head south to Warrenton or north to Marshal for some well-deserved refreshment and a foot massage.
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