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Wilderness Wednesday: Virginia's First Wilderness

Bordered by the Thunder Ridge Wilderness, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Petites Gap Road in the south; and the James River in the northeast, the James River Face Wilderness is Virginia’s first designated wilderness with a total of 8,886 acres. Located in west central Virginia, one of the area’s important characteristics is its sheer scenic beauty that is visible on any one of its 32 miles of trails—11 of which are part of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. To get a wider view of James River Face, visitors can climb one of the numerous bluffs and cliffs in the wilderness area, where elevation can range from 650 feet at the James River to Highcock Knob at 3,073 feet. Where the James River cuts through the Blue Ridge Mountains, a beautiful gorge is visible offering distant views; perfect for a picture.

James River Face_Steve BoutcherJames River Face Wilderness, Steve Boutcher, wilderness.net

The James River Face Wilderness is home to a diverse variety of plants. About 800 types of plants can be found here, which is almost 1/3 of all recorded plants in Virginia. Some of the plants that can be found in this wilderness area are: white pine, northern red oak, chestnut oak, yellow pine, bulbous bluegrass, dwarf shrubs, and much more. Throughout the wilderness area keep an eye out for the stunning rhododendron and azalea flowers; they’re not to be missed. Other plants to watch out for are the area’s three extremely rare plants: clammyweed, star flowered Solomon’s seal, and Kankakee mallow.

About 75 types of birds and 55 types of mammals can be found in James River Face. Among them are white tailed deer, wild turkeys, black bears, foxes, coyotes, hawks, bald eagles, salamanders such as Virginia seal salamander and Appalachian seal salamander, snakes, lizards, and birds. Along with the rare plants, keep a look out for the water shrew near the James River and the rock vole, both very rare animals.

In addition to countless scenic views, visitors can enjoy other activities such as hiking, bird watching, camping, fishing, horseback riding, photography, orienteering, and cross country skiing. The wilderness area also has opportunities for peace and quiet for people who want to get away from their everyday life and just enjoy the serenity of nature. One of the unique highlights of James River Face is Devil’s Marbleyard, which can be reached by taking the Belfast Trail. Located on the slopes of the Gunter Ridge, it is an 8-acre hillside boulder field featuring remarkable car-sized boulders and breathtaking mountain views of the wilderness area below.

While it is known for being Virginia’s first wilderness area, visitors have given the area a second reputation. As one of the most beautiful wilderness areas with the best scenic views in Virginia, the James River Face Wilderness is a place that is worthy of every American’s bucket list.

-- by Fionna Poon, Our Wild America intern

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