Sunday, November 23, 2014

AT Project in VA: Front Royal to Matthews Arm Campground

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 9/28/14 – US 522, Front Royal, VA Southbound to Matthews Arm Campground – 19 miles

I mulled this solo backpack- ing trip over for days and days, how the 40+ miles should be 3 days/2 nights but the shelters are not spaced well.  Shenandoah National Park is a puzzle.  The AT is never far from Skyline Drive so it’s hard to find privacy for camping…and established backcountry campsites between shelters are sporadic and not marked on any maps or guidebooks.  Will there be one where you want one?  Can you make one where you need one?  One thing I knew:  water was scarce.  Even at shelters, the designated springs were not always reliable.  I didn’t want to carry a lot of water all day in anticipation of none near a campsite.  All these variables were swirling in my brain as I started my weekend-that-might-just-be-an-overnight-marathon. 

Sharon Johnson, the shuttle driver, arrived at the pickup point a week early and cheerfully called me.  When I gently reminded her of our arranged date she remained cheerful and went on to her next shuttle customer of the morning.  I worried about her showing up on the real day – but she did, a few minutes early.  Sharon’s husband, Tom, had shuttled a group I was part of over Memorial Day weekend, and she is every bit as enjoyable as he is.  Elderly, loves to drive, talks nonstop about anything and everything, hard of hearing so I couldn’t answer much – just trust.  I only grabbed the door handle two times on our speedy ride.

Started where the AT crosses US 522 at Front Royal, heading southbound

A rocky trail

At about 3.5 miles, the AT enters Shenandoah NP and backpack- ers should self- register if they plan to stay in the park overnight.  I still hadn’t made a decision yet on how far I was going today, so I wrote in two alternatives:  Gravel Springs Gap Shelter or Matthews Arm Campground.  If I chose some random spot in the woods, well, that would have to do.   

The first 6 miles felt great, but then my backpack got heavy.  Rather than influencing me to make it a short day, I began to lean toward let’s-get-moving-and-shorten-the-duration.  Kinda like ripping off a band-aid:  it hurts but faster is better than the slow peel.

Yes, backpacking is one of my favorite things, but what I’ve learned about myself is that I’d rather have company.  Hiking alone all day is good for the soul, but sharing a meal and small talk with a companion at the end of the day is very desirable.  If you like being sociable and constantly making new friends, that is one of the pluses of thru-hiking. 

Back to the wonders of the day:  an area recovering from fire

Burls like gnarly toes

View southwest from summit of North Marshall Mountain, a sliver of Skyline Drive visible

View north from North Marshall Mountain

From the top of North Marshall the AT descended to cross Skyline Drive and I ran into a ranger-led hike that included some rambunctious children.  Once past them, I picked up my pace to stay ahead and climbed quickly to the summit of South Marshall Mountain which seemed empty of people.  After clicking a few photos, a woman’s head popped up from the rocks.  She introduced herself as Maureen and I warned her that her solitude was about to end as a ranger group was on the move.  She laughed and said that she had hustled ahead of them, too.  Through her binoculars Maureen showed me a pair of bald eagles riding the wind currents and we had a lovely chat about the peacefulness of the mountains when you can find a moment (nearly) alone.  “Nature centers me,” she said.  

On South Marshall Mountain

Then the ranger and her entourage arrived.  Her group was entranced by her every word, and when she saw me she began to talk about the Appalachian Trail (which they were standing on) and how some people walk all the way from Georgia to Maine. 

From South Marshall the trail descended again, passing many great viewpoints, to Gravel Springs Gap.  My real decision point of the day came up shortly after that, at the side trail to Gravel Springs Gap Shelter.  The side trail was a very steep .2 miles and I needed to get water from the spring at the shelter.  I hadn’t crossed any creeks all day and all the marked springs were also on side trails, so this one was as good as any.

The spring at the shelter.  Some genius had placed a leaf to help funnel the low flow.


Five people were already stopped for the night (the shelter sleeps 8), which met the sociability criteria, but it just seemed too early to call it quits.  I had hiked 13.5 miles and it was just 3:30 in the after- noon.  Rain was forecast for the following day, meaning a wet second night.  The deciding factor for continuing was...three park rangers setting up a huge barrel-shaped bear trap.  Seems that a bold bear had been coming around and had stolen a hiker’s backpack the previous night.  I was a bit surprised that they weren’t closing the shelter.  Matthews Arm Campground was about 3.6 miles further along the trail and I might even find a suitable little spot before that.  Then tomorrow would be a very long day but I would finish up and avoid that rainy second night.  So…moving on.

Hiking back up the steep .2-mile side trail I noticed a twinge from my left leg IT band.  The twinge became a pain, but I knew now from experience that it would reach a certain point and I could endure it.  I also knew that a night’s rest would help. 

View from Little Hogback Mountain

Ferns fading to rust

A “trail tree”?  Some say that Native Americans bent and tied down the trunks of saplings a couple of feet off the ground to mark paths in the forest.  Trees grow from their tips rather than en masse, so a tree trunk that is twisted or distorted, whether by nature or man, will maintain that distortion at that height.  However, this tree’s bend was much over my head.  Probably a natural result of another tree falling on it or a heavy load of snow and ice.  What made this so noteworthy was that I saw at least a dozen of these on the AT on this day. 

A hole through the trunk like a picture frame

More fall color

Sassafrass tree

By 5:00 p.m. I was getting near where a right side trail leads .7 miles to Matthews Arm Campground.  Of course, .7 miles in meant adding .7 miles back out to the trail in the morning.  I began scouting for a discrete place to pitch a tent without the detour.  There were a few possibilities, but I was still encountering day trippers because of the many access points to Skyline Drive and didn’t feel comfortable popping up my pink tent.   Kept on walking and reached the crossing for the road, where a right turn led to the campground and it was now-or-never time.  At this point I’d hiked 18 miles.  Going further on the trail wouldn’t guarantee me a campsite and I needed to be settled before dark.

I misread the map and I did not anticipate the mile road walk from that point to the campground and thus did not save myself a detour.  I was irritated at that last mile, but it was a chance to practice “letting it go.”  At the campground there were few people, self-registration, and I needed a site with a bear box because I had no vehicle for food storage.  I wanted to inquire if I could stash some of my stuff and hike light tomorrow, but I never found a ranger on duty.   

Camp chores done, cooking and eating, water for tomorrow, in my tent by dark (7:30 p.m.) where I doctored two blisters on my toes, poking them on the edges with a safety pin, squeezing out the liquid, applying band aids, crossing fingers they’ll be okay for 21 miles tomorrow.  Such is the glamourous pedicure of a backpacker. 

Although the campground was nearly deserted, I could hear a satellite TV inside a pop-up camper. 

So…19 miles today, about 21 to go tomorrow.  Will it rain?  Can I stash my stuff (tent, sleeping bag, stove and fuel) somewhere here and hike light?  If I hide it in the woods will animals disturb it?  What if I get stuck somewhere and need it? 

“It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” ~Wendell Berry

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wilson Creek Wildness: High Water

Wilson Creek – 9/13/14 – 9 Miles

Wilson Creek is a designated Wild and Scenic River in North Carolina east of Linville Gorge Wilderness, well known to its weekend locals but not so much to the rest of us.  I was first introduced to the area while hiking the Mountains-To-Sea Trail.  In local parlance, the phrase “Wilson Creek” encompasses more than just the creek.  The area lies mostly within Pisgah National Forest, beginning with the creek’s headwaters at Grandfather Mountain and moving southward to include the Lost Cove and Harper Creek Wilderness study areas and Brown Mountain to Johns River.  I think of Wilson Creek as a state of mind:  a little mysterious with few trail signs, the occasional trail that isn’t on the map, lots of water, numerous gravel forest roads, and a backcountry feeling because of the freedom to camp almost anywhere (except within 500 feet of Wilson Creek itself because of the Wild & Scenic designation).  To me what makes Wilson Creek so special is (you guessed it) water:  swimming holes, waterfalls and lots of creek crossings without bridges.  Rock hopping is rare as most crossings range from ankle to hip deep. 

Cathy posted this hike opportunity on the Carolina Berg Wanderers website but the rain forecast caused several people to bail out.  How many times have we said don’t base your outdoor life on the weatherman?  Five of us met the challenge:  Chris, Cathy, me, Mike and Becky.  Driving to the trailhead via Highway 181, it was impossible to ignore the thick fog, but we broke through onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and saw promising patches of blue sky.  We enjoyed a beautiful, fun-filled day. 

Okay, we never actually saw the real Wilson Creek.  Our plan was to hike the Lost Cove Trail loop counterclockwise, criss-crossing Lost Cove Creek and Gragg Prong.  We began at the Roseborough Road trailhead after a few miles of teeth-jarring bumpery on the gravel road.  Plenty of cars already there so I expected to see some weekend campers. 

We started off with Mike’s GPS track, immediately got off-kilter because of a couple of extra approach shortcuts and had to consult my paper map (I’m the only one who brought one).  Are we on Lost Cove Trail or Timber Ridge Trail?  Let’s say Lost Cove. 

Do you prefer your big climbs at the beginning of a hike rather than at the end?  I know I do.  We faced a steep calf- stretching climb right away, no switchbacks, up, up, up.  A trail coming in from the left was apparently Timber Ridge Trail.  A little more climbing to the gap at Bee Mountain, then an abrupt left turn onto Lost Cove Trail and we lost all we had gained on a big downhill. 

At the confluence of Little Lost Cove Creek and Lost Cove Creek.  The rushing water was l-o-u-d.  Recent rains had increased the water level significantly.  What were we going to find ahead?

Another clue:  the trail was pretty sloshy in places

Our first of several crossings of Lost Cove Creek.  Who to follow – Becky or Cathy?

Looks like Becky got it figured out.

Chris didn’t have much experience with deep water crossings but she was quickly educated.  She was nervous, which is an important pre- requisite.  Right now she’s thinking this isn’t bad so far…

At the second run, I noticed that Becky, Cathy and Mike kept going while Chris and I were still crossing, so I requested that after that everyone wait until all were safely out of the water.  If the last person slips and falls, someone needs to be there to help.  No one would hear yelling over the noise of the creek.

Lichen-covered log

Another mild crossing, easy to see the bottom

Following the creek gently downhill made for laid back hiking but the crossings became increasingly challenging.  Near the top of Hunt Fish Falls, there was no obvious good place to cross.  Everyone spread out to scout it, and the next thing I knew, Mike was attempting to cross in thigh-high swift current.  I watched him - not much I could do but at least see if he is okay.  He slipped and got a good dunking but quickly regained his footing.  The look in his eyes said he learned a lesson about fast moving water.  He made it across, but the rest of us crossed at another point.  I never really felt like we found the intended entry point because the water was so high.

Soon after that we reached Hunt Fish Falls and our first encounter with other hikers.  At the base of the first falls is an enormous rock pool perfect for swimming or wading.  Another short waterfall leads to another large pool – room for everyone!  Plenty of rock surface for sunbathing too.  At this point the Mountains-To-Sea Trail intersects and then runs eastward concurrently with Lost Cove Trail.

Relaxing at Hunt Fish Falls, Cathy and Chris and I each had our photos taken sitting beside the falls, a photo op worthy of the family calendar. 

After I took Chris’s photo, she began scooting to the edge and her phone slipped out of her pocket and fell into the water - a sick feeling for anyone.  Cathy and Becky tried to find it in butt-deep water but no luck. 

After eating lunch we resumed our hike, passing a number of campsites along the creek edge.  After crossing Lost Cove Creek a couple more times (getting deeper) and passing the left turn onto Timber Ridge Trail, we reached the confluence of Lost Cove Creek and Gragg Prong.  Here the MST curved leftward and began following Gragg Prong uphill – yes, that means climbing again, which I had forgotten about from my MST hiking days, but this was not as serious as our initial uphill.    

Gragg Prong is a lovely mountain creek and the MST is rugged as it follows along its edge.  In several places the trail was very narrow and the drop to the creek was dramatic.  Gragg Prong Falls is a series of cascades that can be accessed from several scramble points.  Cathy had also hiked this trail previously and we both were looking for pools that we remembered…but the water volume was so high that the pools were indistinguishable in the fast-flowing stream.  

Gragg Prong Falls

The last serious negotiation of Gragg Prong, then the crossings became gentler.  The water was not cold and felt refreshing when we weren’t worried about getting hurt. 

We passed numerous creekside campsites in the last mile, very tempting, but I know the area is heavily used by weekend car campers with coolers and camp chairs and I prefer more solitude.  Here are Becky and Cathy at the last crossing with the MST white circle blaze.  The MST crosses the parking area and continues on upward to the Blue Ridge Parkway and around the lower regions of Grandfather Mountain as part of the Tanawah Trail.  Another day, perhaps.

As we enjoyed the traditional apr├Ęs-hike Mexican dinner that evening we all agreed that if we had known the high water conditions we probably would not have done the hike and we were glad that the people who canceled had not come along.  It was very good training for Chris, but more people means more potential for injury.  I guess Wilson Creek is one place where you really should pay attention to the weatherman…

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” ~Leonardo da Vinci

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vacation: Well, If Those Are Not YOUR Footprints In the Sand...

Goldmine Loop/Tunnel Bypass/Noland Creek Trails – 9/5/14 - 6 Miles

We knocked off our “to-go” wish list in way, way western NC in two days instead of three, so on Thursday Jim enjoyed a morning bike ride in the Upper Alarka valley while I read, sipped coffee and meditated at our cabin.  We spent the afternoon in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hiked to Juney Whank Falls and then sat in our camp chairs by the creek with our feet in the water.  Dinner at Jimmy Mac’s on Main Street in Bryson City.  Aaahhh…I know, right?

By Friday we were ready to stretch our legs on trails nearby.  We headed into the Smokies again on the Road to Nowhere to hike the Tunnel Bypass and Goldmine Loop Trails. 

The Tunnel Bypass Trail begins at the parking area at the end of Lakeview Drive within sight of the tunnel for which the road is nick- named.  Lakeview Drive was intended to extend through the park to connect with Fontana after Fontana dam was built and the resulting Fontana Lake covered the original Highway 288 and land claimed for the lake. But construction was never completed and in 2010 the U.S. Department of Interior agreed to pay a settlement to local residents and descendants.  Read a brief summary here. 

Tunnel Bypass is a connector trail to the Lakeshore Trail and the Forney Creek area of the park.  Not much to make note of on our hike other than late summer tall bellflower and blue lobelia and one recent blowdown. 

After .4 miles we turned left onto Goldmine Loop Trail.  Please don’t confuse this with the Goldmine Trail, also part of the GSMNP but located on the far western edge of the park on the Tennessee side.  If you are meeting your friend and you get these two mixed up, you will not see each other that day. 

Goldmine Loop Trail is two miles long and descends from either end down to a fingertip of Fontana Lake.  It was a hot, muggy, spiderwebby day. 

All the boar traps I have seen in the Smokies look like they are unused, but I guess I don’t know what a “used” one looks like. 

Fontana Lake, looking much better than the last time I was here when the water level was greatly receded

We passed a field filled with wildflowers of white and purple aster, goldenrod and golden-glow.  An open area like that implies an old homestead.  This beautiful stacked stone chimney is still standing tall.

I was very excited to find pinesap popping up in profusion alongside the trail at the low point of our hike.  This is a parasitic plant related to Indian-pipe, the difference between the two that Indian-pipe stems hold a single flower and pinesap holds multiple flowers.  As often happens, as soon as I saw one they seemed to be everywhere.  Then the trail climbed 100 feet and they disappeared. 

The far end of Goldmine Loop Trail connects to the Lakeshore Trail, where a right turn took us almost immediately to the far end of Tunnel Bypass Trail, which we followed to complete our loop back at the parking area.  A nice little hike, but we weren’t quite ready to call it quits.  What else could we explore nearby?

Well, there’s the “tail end” of the Noland Creek Trail.  This trail begins high up in the heart of the Smokies at Upper Sassafras Gap and descends nine miles to intersect Lakeshore Drive, then continues for another mile to Fontana Lake.  I’ve hiked the upper portion several times and there are numerous home sites and cemeteries to explore along that section.  It is an old railroad grade, wide and gentle, an easy out-and-back hike.  But the lower mile to Fontana Lake is nice, too, crossing loud and noisy Noland Creek on wide wooden bridges.  We decided to walk down this trail to the lake.

Blue lobelia

For the last few hundred yards along the lakeshore we picked our way across quite a lot of debris, looking for Campsite 66, which we found at the woods’ edge.  To be honest, there was not much inviting me to spend a night here.  Perhaps it just felt too muggy. 

Jim raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, there’s no one else here and that water looks good.”  Sans boots and shirt he floated away. 

After a bit of internal debate (did I want to walk back to the car soaking wet?) I did the same.  Just a few steps from the water’s edge, the bottom dropped away into a deep channel.  I lost my nerve (don’t like water I can’t see through) and swam back to shore. 

I carried my boots to a big rock to sit and dry my feet with my bandana as Jim got out of the water.  As he walked toward me, he asked, “Did you walk here?  Are these your footprints?”  Well, no, I didn’t walk close to the water line because the sand was too soft.  But something did.

We followed the prints backwards to where the bear came down from the woods, but there were no prints leaving the shore.  Mr. Bear must have swum across to the far side of the little channel. 

You never know what you'll find on a walk in the woods.

“As soon as I saw you, I knew an adventure was going to happen.”  ~Winnie the Pooh