Trail Review: Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve

It’s been awhile since a trail review! Weather, holidays, injuries, and illness have kept us from exploring many new trails over the last couple of months–but that doesn’t mean we didn’t manage at least a couple.

I mentioned Buffalo Mountain before in my post about Hygge and the Winter Solstice, but wanted to save reviewing the trail for a separate post.

When Jordi and I were making plans, one of our reasons for choosing Claytor Lake State Park, was that it was less than an hour’s drive from McAfee’s Knob. That trail is high on both of our hiking bucket lists, but at a three hour drive from Richmond, and then an almost 9 mile hike, it has never been something we could do in a day–much less with kids. So we very ambitiously thought, with 1/3 the commute, maybe we could finally manage it?

By the time we both dealt with late starts and traffic getting to the cabin, we had independently decided there was no way our kids could handle a 9 mile hike the next day–and even if they could, we couldn’t.

But we still wanted to get out, so we began our search for trails nearby that were exciting enough for us, but short/easy enough for the kids to stay motivated. Ultimately, we decided on the Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve, in Floyd County, VA. According to other trail reviews, it was a short, 2.2 mile trail with only 551 feet of elevation gain, it had panoramic views at the top, and unique vegetation for us to admire.

The hardest part of this trail was getting there, thanks to bumpy roads and my GPS getting confused (definitely look up directions beforehand since there is very limited cell signal near the trail head!), but once we got there, we were so glad we did.

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The most snow my kids have seen since our move to the south!

The parking lot is large, and while the day we went was bright and in the upper 40s, there was still a little snow on the north side of the mountain for the kids to play in. Once we started on the trail, we were treated to a rocky stretch with very little elevation gain for the first third of the trail. The kids enjoyed playing on downed trees, and climbing on a large rock just before the first switchback–they pretended it was a pirate ship, sailing towards the sky visible through the bare trees.

After the first switchback the elevation gain begins. All of the kids were pretty tired by the time we got to the top–a late night the day before, getting to the trailhead after lunchtime, and lots of play on the first leg had them mostly ready to crash before we really started climbing. Even with that, the five year olds didn’t start whining about wanting to quit until right at the end, and while the toddlers both asked to be carried before we reached the summit, I feel confident that had we gotten out early after they had a proper night’s sleep, they would have been running up the trail. When, that is, they didn’t stop to play! We passed a few more exciting rock formations and felled trees, more snow, and a stump that had been carved into a “seat,” with “Buffalo” painted on it, and a “T” carved out–the only true trail marker we saw on the whole hike.

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Grumpy faces because they had to take turns sitting on the “seat” behind the trail marker.

The toughest part of the climb is the last 200 yards or so; the trail here is very wide, but water runoff has made it very uneven, and the grade nearly doubles from what is has been. Thankfully this section is short, and you are rewarded with a bench waiting at the summit, and incredible 270 degree views.

We stayed and explored for awhile at the top–though word of caution, it is very windy up here! The kids were searching for gaps in the rocks to hide in to get out of the wind, and we ended up finding a nice lunch spot in a side trail through a rhododendron grove.

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The terrain at the top of the mountain is really interesting–we had read before going that this area is home to several rare plants and animals, but seeing just how different it looked from the mountaintops we were used to was a treat. The kids took off running, excited to have open space, before we called them back to the trail so we could explore the rocks to the west, expanding our view further. We would have stayed longer if the wind hadn’t been bothering the one year old we had with us so much, and I would love to be there sometime at sunrise or sunset.

Retrace your steps back to the car, for a short and extremely rewarding hike.

Parent!hack

Because of our late start, the return/downhill trip was actually the hardest part for the kids! They were pretty tired from the climb up, a little overwhelmed from all the social interaction, and definitely very hungry! We had snacks, but I came up with a game after remembering I had a small bag of Jelly-Bellies in our day pack. When the three-year-old just had enough on our descent and stopped and refused to get up, I pulled out the jelly beans, gave everyone a few, and announced that they could get more at every switchback. It worked beautifully. They were nearly racing each other! And on the final stretch we came up with a few landmarks, before finally dispersing the remainder in the parking lot. Jordi commented that she was so glad we didn’t do it on the way up because the trick would have lost its magic, and I agree. I generally don’t like “bribes” to get down the trail since I fear the precedent it sets, but in this instance? It was perfect. Which taught me that sometimes, candy really may be the answer!

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A picture she had no problem posing for. 🙂

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4.5/5

It’s hard to find summits in the Virginia mountains that are good to do with kids; so often they are either too long or too difficult for little ones to stay motivated, or the views are limited due to the overall low elevation of the mountains. While this trail is not easy to get to in the car, it fills a great need for epic views, with a hike that small walkers can manage, and enough along the way to keep them interested, even in the dead of winter when everything is bare and brown.

The biggest drawback for little ones on this trail is that as tempting as it will be for them to run freely along the bald, the vegetation there is sensitive, and it may be frustrating for toddlers to be told they can’t explore.

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