Laurel Fork Trails Maintenance by Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards


For those reflecting on warmer days and hiking, or already thinking ahead to spring, AMR spoke with Eric Giebelstein, a Program Manager for the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, or SAWS.  He has information on how the non-profit organization is maintaining trails in our own backyard.

Mr. Giebelstein says, “We are a conservation non-profit focused on stewardship of designated wilderness areas and other protected public lands.  Specifically, we partner with the Forest Service to do priority projects in those protected public lands focusing on designated wilderness, so we do trail maintenance, trail construction, as well as visitor contacts, and we run volunteer days and try to engage the public in stewardship and try to make wilderness more relevant to the public.  You don’t care for something if you can’t experience it, and you can’t experience it if you can’t access it, so that’s one of our main goals is to make sure there’s access available to those wilderness areas.”

With that goal in mind, SAWS has been traveling to the Laurel Fork area in the northern part of Highland County the past three years for trail maintenance.  They have a unique partnership with the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  In early August of 2018, students from the Academy, referred to as midshipmen, came to help.  Mr. Giebelstein explains, “The way we partner with them is that we put them, basically, in to a trail crew, and, so, I have two trail crew leaders that lead projects with four to five midshipmen that are, sort of, the trail crew members, so that team, last summer, went out in Highland County in to Laurel Fork area, and we maintained both the vegetation, the trees that were across the trail, and the trail tread, the surface that you walk on on five of the trails in the Laurel Fork area, so that’s Buck Run, Locust Spring Run, Christian Run, Cold Springs Run, and that section of Laurel Fork that runs between Christian Run and Cold Springs Run.  We’re a backcountry trail crew, and, so, we hike in, and set up camp and then stay out there, basically, until we get the work done.  It was six days this year.

“The plan is that we’ll continue working with the Warm Springs Ranger District to do priority projects back in there.  It’s a really unique place.  I really connect with Laurel Fork in a couple ways.  For me, it’s one of those places in Virginia that you can feel alone in a big place.  The times that I’ve been back in there, I, I don’t see another soul, and it’s a really nice place for me, at least, to connect with nature and to, sort of, reset my clock, which I really enjoy, and givin’ the folks from the Naval Academy the chance to feel that, is really important for us, while getting that priority work done on the trail so that people like yourself, the folks in Highland County, and in the surrounding area a chance to go experience it without all the stinging nettle and climbin’ over the trees there across the trail and everything like that, gettin’ lost, and I do anticipate coming back out there, if not 2019, then 2020.”

The Laurel Fork trails are open to the public, and dispersed camping is allowed, which means visitors can camp anywhere where there are no prohibitive signs.  For locations and directions, Mr. Gieblestein continues, “They can contact the Warm Springs Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, 540-839-2521, and then otherwise, they can also get a National Geographic Map, The Trails Illustrated Map, and the map they would look for is the ‘Staunton, Shenandoah Mountain Map’, and it’s Map Number 791.”

People who want to volunteer with, donate to or learn more about SAWS can visit

Story By

Chris Swecker

is the Assistant Station Coordinator and a News Reporter for WVLS. He has roots in Highland County going back several generations, and he grew up in Monterey. Since graduating from James Madison University with a bachelor’s degree in Media Arts and Design, he has pursued his career at a news station and advertising agency in Virginia, on Microsoft’s campus in the state of Washington, and in both states as sole owner and employee of a video production company. He enjoys exploring life with his wife, Jessa Fowler, traveling, hiking, hunting, gardening, and trying new foods, all while discovering more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He feels blessed to be a small part of this talented AMR team to help give back to the community that has provided him with so much.

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