On the Buffalo

In the southwest corner of Floyd County lies a place called Buffalo Mountain, with a history steeped in equal parts natural rarity and shocking folklore. At 3,971 feet in elevation, the hump-shaped mountain towers above the surrounding landscape to offer visitors a soul-hearty view, thanks largely in part to the open glades at its peak. These grassy areas are ecological islands of scarcely-found plant species, born of unique weather conditions and magnesium-rich soils. And so far as infrequent sightings go, if you want to spy a particular insect known as the Buffalo Mountain mealybug, there is no other place on earth to do so.

It is the mountain’s unusual characteristics and unique natural communities that led to its current designation as a Natural Area Preserve. The property contains a total of 1,140 acres, nearly all of which are contiguous and expand in a southeast direction from the summit. The land is part of a larger tract that was granted to General “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, a cavalry commander in the American Revolution (and later Governor of Virginia) who served under General George Washington. Lee passed the property to his two sons, the more famous being Civil War General Robert E. Lee. More recently, it was purchased in 1996 from The Lawson Co., Inc. by The Nature Conservancy, and is now owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation-Division of Natural Heritage (DCR-DNR).

Assisting the DCR with management duties are members of the Buffalo Mountain Hunt Club and the Buffalo Mountain Volunteer Stewardship Committee (BMVSC), the latter headed by patriarch “Buffalo Jack” Price and his wife, Sam. I recently had the opportunity to hike the 1.1-mile summit trail with Jack and his two grandchildren, 7-year old Malia and younger brother Dorian, age 4, of Mobile, Alabama. Being a forester, I thought I was a pretty good hiker- until those two left me in the dust. Jack and I were content with a third-place tie.

The BMVSC was spawned as the need arose for an increased presence of preservation-minded individuals at the Buffalo. Being a Natural Area Preserve, certain uses are prohibited, and those include: horseback riding, off-road vehicles, rock-climbing, and the collection of plants, animals, and rocks. And though foot travel is permitted throughout the acreage, it is best kept to established trails in order to avoid damage to sensitive areas. Jack, Sam, and fellow volunteers are there many weekends and holidays to establish a presence on behalf of the DCR, and to provide information to visitors regarding permitted uses. Other activities include trash pick-up, trail maintenance, vegetation monitoring, and leading hikes to the summit. The BMVSC also serves as the eyes and ears of DCR employees Bill Dingus and Claiborne Woodall, the area’s Conservation Officer and Southwest Region Steward, respectively.

This October will mark two years since a new summit trail was constructed by Ed Sutton, owner of Trail Dynamics (www.traildynamics.com), with the help of four crew members. The project lasted several weeks and resulted in the current route- one that incorporates four switchbacks and greatly lessens the overall grade as compared to the former ridgeline trail. According to my GPS receiver, the new trail runs for 5,587 feet from the parking lot to the USGS marker at the high point, with an average grade of just under ten percent- an easy walk for the average visitor.

As I strode alongside Jack Price, we discussed The Man Who Moved a Mountain, an excellent book by Richard C. Davids that chronicles the life of mountaineer-turned-Presbyterian minister Bob Childress, an iconic figure who had a profoundly positive impact on the people of the Buffalo during the first half of the twentieth century. After our hike, I came home and read the book for a second time, no less astounded by the tales of liquor, shootings, and fist-fights so commonplace to the people of the Buffalo than I was the first time around. The stories were gleaned from the author’s time spent in and around the Buffalo community, and I have to believe the tales are as factual as the mountain itself.

I spend a good deal of time in the woods, alone, and will admit that I am not immune to the occasional eerie feeling. I sometimes find myself on a piece of ground in some far-off hollow where the tree crowns shade nearly every sliver of light, the rocks echo strange sounds, and it just feels different. I recall working on the north side of the Buffalo some years back, below the preserve, and that peculiar sense stuck with me all day. Perhaps it was the ghosts of dead chestnut trees, a reverberation of past deeds, or just the way the woods connected with me at that place and time. There is something deeply unique about the area.

I encourage everyone that has not yet experienced the Buffalo, particularly by way of the new trail, to make the trip soon. Visitors to Floyd should know that the preserve is only 14 miles from town, and is well-worth the short excursion. From the stoplight, head south on 221 about six miles and turn left on Union School Rd. After 4.7 miles, hang a right onto Conner Grove at the stop sign and then an immediate left onto Moles Rd. just across the bridge. After 1.1 miles bear right to continue on Moles Rd., which shortly turns to gravel. After one mile and at the end of state maintenance, take a hard right following the Nature Preserve signs. Another 1.1 miles and you arrive at the parking lot. If you are GPS-handy, the coordinates are: 36.79607N 80.47606W

Anyone who is interested in volunteering with the BMVSC, or otherwise providing assistance, can contact Jack Price at BuffaloMountainJack@gmail.com. But I’ll warn you, if his grandkids are in town you better lace your boots tight and be prepared to move fast.

Matthew J. Pace

Originally published in the Floyd County Magazine, Fall/Winter 2009-2010 issue. Visit www.floydcountyvirginia.org to learn more about what’s happening in Floyd County, Virginia.