Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pilot Mountain State Park On A Tuesday

Pilot Mountain State Park – 2/4/14 – 9 miles

Every week of January 2014 I attempted to hike on the AT in Virginia…and each plan was foiled by weather, too much snow, too cold, too windy to go alone.  So in early February I saw a one-day window of opportunity and made a run for it – not to Virginia, but to Pilot Mountain State Park in NC.  Three reasons to go:  One, a shorter trip than going to VA on a weekday; two, I hadn’t been there since the kids were small; and three, the Mountains-To-Sea Trail has been rerouted to pass through the park. 

Called the most recognizable mountain in North Carolina, Pilot Mountain is actually two quartzite pinnacles connected by a narrow saddle, the most prominent remainder of the time-worn Sauratown Mountain range.  Big Pinnacle rises to 2,421 feet.  From the website:  “To the native Saura Indians, the earliest known inhabitants of the region, Pilot Mountain was known as Jomeokee, the "Great Guide" or "Pilot." It guided both Native Americans and early European hunters along a north-south path through the area.”

In addition to the Mountain section, the park stretches to include a section of the Yadkin River, connected by a 6.5-mile narrow corridor.  The Mountains-To-Sea Trail follows the corridor up from the River portion, along the eastern edge of the mountain section, then turns eastward towards Hanging Rock State Park.  This reroute occurred after I completed the MST in 2011. 

I was chomping at the bit for a challenging hike to test my knees and I found one. 

The Park was nearly deserted on this cold but clear Tuesday morning.  During my nine-mile hike I saw two dayhikers, two trail runners and a guy walking his dog.  On a warmer Saturday visitors can number in the hundreds.

A little Zen on the Grindstone Trail, which begins at the park office and passes by the camp- ground  
loop, making easy access for campers to hike to the main attraction summit.

Past the campground, the Grindstone Trail climbs moderately and at 2.5 miles it forks; the right option is a connector to the Ledge Spring Trail.  I took the left option (a Ledge Spring/Grindstone Trail section running concurrently) and climbed .8 miles more to the summit area parking area, which was enormous and deserted except for two people who had stepped five yards from their car to look at the view.

And the view is this

Tree framing the view

A short path from the parking lot leads to the summit of Little Pinnacle and the prime viewing spot for what you came for:  Big Pinnacle

Of course the next thing to do is follow the Jomeokee Trail as it crosses the saddle and encircles Big Pinnacle.  I was thrilled at my great good fortune to be there totally alone. 

Rock face

Hugging the wall

Looking straight up the rock, see trees growing out of crevices

Looks like a climber’s nirvana, doesn’t it?  But climbing is prohibited on Big Pinnacle for several ecological and practical safety reasons.  For instance, making it safe for climbers on top would require building extensive railings and stairs which would greatly detract from the natural view.  Some (most) things are better just left alone.  However, climbing is permitted on the back side of Little Pinnacle along the Ledge Spring Trail, the next section of my hike.

Ah, Ledge Spring Trail, strenuous – yes!  I imagine that tackling this baby uphill is quite a workout.  Nearly a mile of continuous stone steps going downhill was strenuous as well and my knees began to talk aggressively to me the way they did back in November.  The key on this section is to go very slowly and enjoy the towering rock features with climbing route names like Pool Hall, Nuts & Bolts, Three Bears and Devil in the White House.  The up side of my day (no people) was also the down side (no climbers).

I turned left onto Mountain Trail, which continues a winding descent for 2.5 miles to Pinnacle Hotel Road and the entrance to the Corridor Trail connecting to the river portion of the Park.  Along this section I saw the devastation of last year’s controlled burn that, well, got out of control.  I remember it well because Jim and I hiked atHanging Rock State Park that day and could see the smoke from 22 miles away.

But look what’s coming back – mountain laurel.  Nature will always win.

At the end of Mountain Trail I took the very short road walk to Grassy Ridge Trail and began to climb what I had just descended.  By now my knees were officially hurting and I took it easy for the last 1.5 miles.  I was glad to see the park office and the end of my loop. 

There you have it, the mountain section of Pilot Mountain State Park.  I skipped the .6-mile Sassafrass Trail that is accessed from the summit parking area; otherwise, I walked all the trails in the section.  I admit to my prejudice against visiting this park on a weekend day.  In my opinion, there are not enough trails to spread out the crowd unless you are willing to venture past the summit and hike the larger loop.  Otherwise, I recommend Tuesday mornings. 

“My favorite weather is bird-chirping weather.”  ~Loire Hartwould

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Cold Day in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park – 1/4/14 – 4 miles

The first Saturday of the new year, I wanted to kick things off with a good, long, strenuous, why-do-I-do-this hike.  But it’s turning out to be an unusual winter around here, extremely cold temperatures, more snow than usual, some impassable roads and, more significantly, no solo hiking for me in the NC/VA mountains.  I enjoy hiking alone, but I don’t think I would enjoy an injury waiting for rescue in a remote location in the cold.  Safety first.

Feeling both melancholy and antsy at these limitations, I looked southward to the closest national park, which I am embarrassed to say I have never visited:   Congaree National Park, 90 minutes via interstate.  Why haven’t I been here? Well, because it really is a swamp area, summer is NOT the time to check this place out (mosquitoes, bees, snakes, the occasional alligator, and humidity that will make you scream in anquish) and in the other seasons there are so many other places to go.  But today looked like the perfect day.

Congaree Swamp National Monument became Congaree National Park in 2003.  It is the first and only national park in South Carolina and at nearly 27,000 acres is the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.  Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers periodically swell the floodplain.  The park includes 25 miles of hiking trails, 2.4 miles of boardwalk, and a canoe trail along Cedar Creek.    The Visitor Center is well worth your time. 

At the parking lot I was a little surprised to find that it was still chilly (35 degrees) but my daypack was well stocked with shirts, gloves, a fleece jacket and even a neck gaiter.  I knew I wouldn’t be generating much heat on the flat trails so I layered up.

The very nice and extremely knowledgeable lady ranger at the VC explained to me that most of the park is flooded in winter and trail access is limited, so my hiking wasn’t going to be extensive.  The Low Boardwalk Trail was probably underwater past the halfway point.  Well, let’s see how far I can get.

From the back door of the VC I walked on the Low Boardwalk, took a left turn at the wrong time, got myself reoriented and scratched my head over what to do next.  I didn’t want to be finished before I started.  Looking at the trail map again, I took the next right turn onto Sims Trail and found myself  walking on solid ground.  Boardwalks are nice for keeping your feet dry, but the railings separate the hiker from getting up close to vegetation.  I met a fellow hiker coming the other way who reported only one small flooded spot on Sims, then the lower boardwalk was impassable.

Dwarf palmettos, something you only see in the low country, bright green standing out like flowers among bare branches of winter.

Guess I’ve gotta go through it to stay on the Sims Trail

Cypress trees and cypress knees in swirling current.   

I think cypress knees have person- alities.  What is their purpose?  Do they help provide structural support during floods and high winds?  There are many theories and no one knows for sure. Read this article and report back.  

Yes, the water at the lower boardwalk intersection was deeper than I cared to venture so I turned left, heading toward Weston Lake.  Still more boardwalk, but rising gently high above the ground.

At the Visitor Center I picked up a copy of the Park’s Boardwalk Guide which corresponds to 20 points of interest along the main boardwalk trails.  I learned about Dorovan muck, snags, switch cane and where the word cane break originates.  The guide even notes the remains of an old still (yes, the kind used to make alcohol.) 

Number 11 on the guide indicates that this loblolly pine is over 150 feet tall, a former state champion.  My daypack is laying at the foot of the tree.  Do you like its “elephant toes”?

Congaree is a birder’s paradise even at this time of year, featuring a constant chatter.  Someday I will learn to identify bird songs.  As for visuals, I spotted a red-bellied woodpecker and heard several of them pecking away looking for lunch.

Spanish moss dripping from the trees

I continued in a loop onto the Elevated Boardwalk, removing me a little farther from the trees and palmettos but giving me a broader view of this protected ecosystem.  In total I walked for about 1.5 hours in Congaree National Park, a lovely way to spend the first Saturday morning of 2014.  I am appreciative that our country deems it important to preserve all types of wild places, not just the biggest mountains and the broadest vistas.  Cypress knees are a wonder of nature, too.

Y’all come!

"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous." ~Aristotle

Friday, March 28, 2014

AT Project in VA: Peters Mountain Bailout

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 11/16/13 - Mountain Lake Road Southbound to Symms Gap Meadow…Or Not – 16.5 Miles

I’ve endured a handful of hikes over the years that I would classify as difficult, not because of the terrain or even the distance but because of physical suffering:  sore feet, sore knees, weary shoulders, bonking because of dehydration or not eating sufficiently.  I’ve often said that the longest mile is the last one.  And yet I’ve felt a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment even through the discomfort (okay, pain) of those days.

Until November 16, 2013. 

I’d planned a 2-day, 28-mile hike on the AT near Pearisburg, VA, a long stretch with few exits.  I had done many long dayhikes since the summer when I wrestled with knee issues, but this would be my first overnight with a loaded backpack in several months.   I was going solo to take advantage of the good weather and I looked forward to challenging myself once again with some alone time.  Jim was going to the Virginia Tech game in Blacksburg, so we would be in the same general area, but he was just up for the day.  I arranged for Don, a shuttle driver that I had used before, to take me to my trailhead at Mountain Island Lake Road and from there I planned to walk southbound into the town of Pearisburg.

As we drove, Don asked me the specifics of my plan and knew well the place where I intended to pitch my tent.  The shelters in this section were not spaced conveniently for me so I was aiming for Symms Gap Meadow.  He told me the last reliable water source was at Pine Swamp Branch Shelter.  Along Mountain Lake Road I took note of all the hunters’ pickup trucks.  [Later I found this excellent section of the ATC website with information on hunting seasons and hiker safety.]

Very foggy driving up the mountain, but we broke above the clouds to a lovely sky and cottony clouds in the valley below. 

I had forgotten to bring my blaze orange vest, so I tied my bright red rain jacket on the outside of my pack and crossed my fingers that it would suffice.  For the first 3.5 miles of my hike the AT runs parallel and close beside Rocky Mountain Road, giving easy access for hunters, but they can venture far from the road and still be in a wilderness area where hunting is allowed.  The protective corridor of the AT can be as narrow as 1,000 feet, so…not much protection.  While hunters are not supposed to use the AT as a route, I guess it’s hard to avoid.  And bullets don’t know anything about boundaries. 

Anyway, the hike started out great, a pretty day, feeling strong.  I met a couple of hunters on the trail, kept hearing gunshots all day, which made me a little nervous, but I soon was immersed in the glory of  the woods.  

I passed Bailey Gap Shelter with barely a glance and began a swift descent through a rhododendron tunnel…

…to a very fancy bridge spanning Stony Creek.

A lichen-encrusted blaze

Perhaps I took that downhill too quickly, short, fast steps, almost skipping in some places.  My left knee began to ache along the outer edge; soon my right knee was chiming in.  The problems of last summer coming back?  Slowing down and stepping more deliberately didn’t help.  Hmmmm…

Meanwhile the trail led me over several streams and close by “The Captain’s,” some sort of privately owned place to camp, and from the looks of it hunters were gathered there also.  Then I began to notice places along the trail where the leaf litter was brushed away as though something (big) had been dragged.

Deer hairs on a footbridge – obviously Bambi and I were not alone in the woods.  I made a mental note to tell all my hiking buddies to only hike on Sundays (no hunting) in southwest Virginia. 

At Pine Swamp Branch Shelter I stopped to eat and assess my knee situation.  By now I was feeling painful twinges with nearly every step.  I was looking at a significant climb just ahead of me and about seven more miles to my campsite.  Knees don’t hurt on the uphill, so I hoped to get a break and just take it easy from there.  So I climbed Peters Mountain and turned south to walk the ridge, which is also the state line of Virginia-West Virginia.

Correction:  knees can hurt on the uphill. 

Mid-afternoon and fog was creeping in.  I was trying to be noisy, kicking leaves and striking stones with my hiking poles.  I walked right up to this hunter and his young son sitting quietly on a log beside the trail. 

After 10 miles the knee pain was excruciating.  I was holding my breath, gritting my teeth and exhaling with a whimper at each step.  The fog made for limited visibility on the rocky terrain and I was slipping and falling often because my knees were so shaky.  How did I get into this predicament?  All I wanted to do was get to my little campsite near Mile 15 so I could lie awake all night wondering how I was going to hike out the remaining 13 miles on Sunday. 

Then…at about Mile 14 I passed a blue-blaze side trail to the right with a sign that said 1.9 miles to a road!  Wait, it’s not on my elevation guide…but it is on my ATC trail map.  The Groundhog Trail!  It was now 4:30 p.m., getting dark along with the fog.  Should I try to get off the trail or hole up and hope that tomorrow would be better after some rest?  I got a cell signal (hallelujah) and called Don, my shuttle driver, and told him I wanted to bail out.  He said he would meet me.  (Was he just waiting by the phone?  I think so.) 

The side trail was in rough shape, steep, slippery leaves, and I fell about 10 times in the first 10 minutes.  Was I going from bad to worse?  The trail itself was hard to see, but the blue blazes on the trees were excellent and I just walked for about an hour from one blaze to the next (knees screaming the whole time).  I think my speed was about a mile an hour.

Don, my shuttle-driver-turned-trail-angel, had quite a drive to come find me – after all, I was now walking down into a West Virginia valley.  Then he walked in half a mile through open pasture and part way up the mountain to meet me.  By now it was full dark.  I could see a head lamp bobbing up the mountainside.   Ah, rescue!  My knees were still hurting but I knew I would soon relinquish my backpack and sit down in Don’s car.  As I followed him back through the open pasture, I saw that I would not ever have found my way in the dark through the overgrown grass.  My last best option would have been to camp in the pasture and then figure it out in the morning.  Glad I didn’t have to.

I can’t say enough about how kind Don was during the ride back to my car.  He continually assured me that I had made the right decision and made me feel smart rather than a wimp.   I really do suspect that he was at home “doin’ nothing” because he knew that I was out alone. 

I called Jim (he was still in the area) and he met us in Pearisburg.  He paid Don a huge ransom as a thank-you, gave me a hug, dusted me off, bought me a cheeseburger, and we drove home.  The knees were still hurting on Sunday but by Monday everything was fine.  Time for a doctor visit.

Lesson 1:  Ain’t no shame in bailing out to stay safe.  I didn’t want to fall and get badly injured.

Lesson 2:  Always, always, always carry a trail map and check your location often to stay oriented.

Lesson 3:  Don’t rely on cell phone coverage and be prepared to spend the night (but I sure was glad when I got that signal)

Lesson 4:  Appreciate and become good friends with shuttle drivers.  They are angels.

Monday, March 24, 2014

AT Project in VA: Closing the (Rockfish) Gap

Appalachian Trail Project in VA - Shenandoah National Park – 10/29/13 – Beagle Gap to Rockfish Gap – 5.3 Miles

My ambitious hiking agenda in Shenandoah NP had not worked out, but that’s the hiking life (and the rest of life, too, really).  Make plans but be ready to change.   Over the years I’ve had many mastermind schemes scuttled by rain, snow, extreme cold, high water creeks, closed roads, illness, dead batteries, bailed-out hiking partners.  Some changes happen the day before, some changes happen at the trailhead.  Plans B, C and D should be in your back pocket.  Just make sure someone at home knows about them, too. 

So today we faced the long drive home (5+hours) and there was just a little morning time to enjoy.  By hiking 5.3 miles southbound on the AT from Beagle Gap to Rockfish Gap I completed a stretch of 181 contiguous miles, a big note of satisfaction for the effort.  While I made my short stroll, Jim enjoyed one last bike ride from Rockfish Gap southbound on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Through a fence style and into a meadow to climb up Bear Den Mountain

Police communication towers at the summit

Someone with a sense of humor installed some comfy tractor seats for a rest stop here at a west-facing view.  Jim remembered seeing these when he and our son completed a 50-miler hike with their Boy Scout troop in Shenandoah many moons ago. 

The leaf change has largely passed on and my attention turned to exploding seed pods in the open meadows. 


Any clues?

I am always interested in evidence of times gone by, old road beds that now lead nowhere, fence posts and stacked stone indicating where humans attempted to corral the wilderness

Fence post with barbed wire

An old gate

And before I knew it, I was at Rockfish Gap, where I staggered off the trail last May after following Cathy for 40 miles over some of the biggest ups and downs on the AT.  As I was changing out of my boots, Jim appeared, looking happy as he always does when he’s on his bike.  The two of us are very fortunate to have such fulfilling hobbies that we can dovetail to spend time together.  It takes planning, flexibility, perseverance, and the desire to cooperate…kind of like marriage, huh?

“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.”  ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery