Friday, February 20, 2015

Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower - Fini, Finito, Terminado

Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower – 1/17/15 – 11 Miles

Haven’t been there before, two maps that don’t quite agree, don’t know what trail conditions are like, a long drive to and from:  all good prerequisites for an adventurous exploratory Carolina Berg Wanderers hike.  I posted my desire to hike to the Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower on the Bergs Meetup page and got a good response from a cross-section of hikers.  To my amazement, even the “old-timers” had never done this hike before.  We would truly all be “first-timers.”

Why Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower?  It’s my last hike to complete the Lookout Tower Challenge.

Where is Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower?  It sits just a smidge away from the Appalachian Trail, 20 trail miles north of Hot Springs, NC.  There are several ways to reach it:  hike north or south on the AT, of course, or drive close to it via a Tennessee access road, or (my choice) hike a few miles on a lollipop route originating on a North Carolina gravel road in Pisgah National Forest.

Nine hikers tumbled out of cars at the trailhead, pulling on boots, opening trekking poles, deciding on layers (how cold does it feel?  How long until I warm up?).  The sky was deep blue and the trail was waiting.

Off to a grand start on an impressive multi-section bridge (Jeff's photo)

A few obstacles on Hickey Fork Trail, but overall conditions were better than I expected

The trail climbed alongside the West Prong of Hickey Fork Creek for about 1.5 miles.  It was not at all tempting to go down this waterslide

At the bottom of the slide, I’m looking skeptical

Hard to see even in wintertime with minimal foliage, but Jeff got a good photo anyway – a 30-foot unnamed waterfall on West Prong of Hickey Fork

Icy chill

Once the trail left the creek the serious climbing started, at times crazy steep to the point where swear words were necessary to stay motivated.  The only two short switchbacks were near Seng Gap; 20 switchbacks would have been helpful.  But this is a national forest, not a national park, and different guidelines for trail building and maintenance apply. 

On a steep trail it’s imperative to stop often to enjoy the view

Seng Gap was confusing with five intersecting trails and required some thought to choose the correct one, even using the guidebook narrative, because signage was missing.  This was the end of Hickey Fork Trail and we turned right onto Pounding Mill Trail, still going up but at a more moderate grade.

About a mile later we reached another inter- section, this one at White Oak Flats Trail.  We took a short break to gather everyone together and make note that on the return hike this would be the decision point for a loop back to the car or just go back the way we came.  We were plenty warmed up by now. (Jeff's photo)

A bit of snow

The climbing wasn’t over.  In fact, the total hike to the lookout tower is 5.5 miles and 3,000 feet elevation gain.  That is a serious workout, but isn’t it better outdoors than in a gym?  Jennifer, who was hiking with us for the first time in almost a year, began to lag behind a tiny bit, worrying about being last.  Mike hung with her and encouraged her, reminding her that she would arrive at the same place as everyone else just a few minutes later (true). 

I hiked alone for the last mile until the trail reached the AT, where I paused to wait for Mike, Jeff and Jennifer.  A little hiker humor here.

When they reached the sign, Jennifer decided to stop and eat there rather than push on the last .2 miles to the tower, a smart decision because she knew her body needed the fuel.  We continued on and checked out the tower amidst all the communication junk. 

The tower cab was locked so we were only able to climb up the stairs.  A stiff wind was blowing and I struggled to hold my camera still.  

Mike and me at Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower – challenge completed!

We found the rest of the crew eating lunch behind a service building in a spot protected from the wind.  And who should appear but Jennifer, well fed and feeling better!  She confessed that today was the first time she had stepped onto the Appalachian Trail.  No wonder she stopped to eat there and have a private moment.

Perusing the guidebook’s trail map (much more detailed than the NatGeo #782 map), we decided to try a short alternate route back to Pounding Mill Trail.  We hiked south on the AT for about a half-mile (Jennifer’s first hike on the AT!) and then left the trail to bushwhack.  (Wintertime is the right time for bushwhacking.)  In less than a hundred yards we connected with Pounding Mill Trail, cutting off more than a mile, and enjoyed the downhill back to the intersection with White Oak Flats. 

At that junction everyone opted to take White Oak Flats, making the loop of the lollipop route and avoiding the steepest section we had climbed.  White Oak Flats is a longer trail, so we added back the mile we had cut off, but with a more gentle descent.  I assumed that this trail would be similar to the other trails we had seen so far, but I was wrong.  It started out along an old forest road, but soon dropped off onto a much narrower, less distinct trail.  Wasn’t hard to follow, just a different character, a lesson not to ever make assumptions in the woods.

White Oak Flats Trail (Jeff's photo)

The trail ended at FS 465 facing a 1.4-mile walk to our cars.  Although it was a flat walk, it felt like a lot more than 1.4 miles.  The last mile is always the longest because at the end of a hike your pace slows down without realizing it. 

Light fading

We finished the hike with some daylight left before 5:00 p.m., which made me very happy, no injuries, everyone accounted for and ready for Mexican food.  Bring on the margaritas!

And will the next hiking challenge please stand up?

“I am always more interested in what I am about to do than what I have already done.”  ~Rachel Carson

Friday, January 16, 2015

Chambers Mountain Lookout Tower

Chambers Mountain Lookout Tower – 3.8 Miles – 1/2/15

On New Year’s Day I like to hang around the house with my blanket and a cup of coffee and the newspaper.  I break out my new calendar, writing in birthdays and anniversaries and other activities already planned.  I daydream about travel and projects, looking at last year’s list and creating new lists.  It’s a very chill day. 

On January 2, though, I’m ready for a little adventure.  Let’s pull out that lookout tower challenge list.  Chambers Mountain looks like a long-ish drive and a short hike, but that’s okay with me. 

The goal of these lookout tower hikes isn’t necessarily the hike but the view and I have found the rewards to be mixed.  Sometimes all you get is a bunch of communication towers cluttered around.  Sometimes the view is just phenomenal (like Panther Top).  Well, Chambers Mountain is worth the hike on the gravel road – heck, even the hike is worth the hike. 

The Chambers Mountain fire tower was erected in 1934 and is one of only two in western NC that is still routinely staffed.  The operator lives in a small house at the base of the tower.  

Lookout Point, the gravel access road to the tower, is just a few miles from Clyde, NC.  I wedged my car into the single wide spot near the locked gate and prepared for a solitary walk up the mountain on this chilly Friday.  As I shouldered my pack, I heard a car – wait, make that three minivans loaded with people.  They pulled up and a cheerful woman hopped out and unlocked the gate.  She said that they had a cabin nearby and asked for the key to the gate so many times that the Forest Service finally just gave them one.  They were going to drive up to the tower and walk down.  Huh.

I ate their dust as I slowly walked up the road cutting through open pastures.  I haven’t hiked since early November.  The last couple of months involved more work hours and eating large quantities of holiday food.  Moving at a sustainable pace, breathing the crisp air, lost in my thoughts, I finally remembered to lift my head and take a look around. 

Cow corral

I walked backwards until the road dipped back into the trees, soaking in the view.  How can you get enough of this? 

Near the summit I encountered the crowd that had driven up, must have been a dozen of them, an extended family of grandparents, parents, children.  They cheerfully greeted me and I told them that they weren’t working hard enough, a good laugh all around…but I meant it.  At least I had the place to myself again. 

When the tower farm came into view I could see the lowly fire tower towards the back of the bunch as I walked the curving road. The resident dog began to bark with all his might from his chain link pen.  He was just doing his job as guard dog, but this fellow seemed capable of getting over that fence – which was between me and the tower steps.  I didn’t want to antagonize him further by walking within five feet of him.  A truck was parked at the house and I waited for the tower operator to come out to check the alarm being raised, but after several minutes no one appeared.  Either he wasn’t there or he saw me from a window and didn’t perceive me to be a problem. 

I didn’t try to go up the tower, but instead enjoyed the view with the incessant barking soundtrack. 

Walking back down the road was equally awesome.  At one of the switchbacks I saw an old fence with an opening and steps and some extra barbed wire. 

Some locals had moved into the pasture while I was up top.  They didn’t mind posing.

All queued up

A four-mile hike and a four-hour drive, not something I would do every day, but it was a great kick-off to a new year.  I’d like to visit this place again in spring or fall (definitely not summer).  One more fire tower to go to finish the challenge! 

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year."  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

AT Project in VA: Grand Finale at Dragon's Tooth

AT Project in Virginia – Dragon’s Tooth Grand Finale – 11/7/14 – 14.1 Miles

Cathy and Becky joined me on my final hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.  I saved this section for last because Dragon’s Tooth is an iconic feature of the AT.  Our shuttle Driver, Joe, took us to our starting point at the parking area on VA 620 where my car battery died on mybirthday and we headed northbound. 

The weatherman was wrong again and not in our favor, as a light misty rain followed us for the first couple of hours.  We stayed chilly all day in long pants and gloves.

Side trail to Pickle Branch Shelter.  Apparently thru hikers don’t have a high opinion of it.

Walking through Miller’s Cove, I love the starkness of bare tree trunks and fallen leaves

I was surprised to see this rock wall as the trail ascended Cove Mountain

A little leaf color still hanging around

First view today

Most leaves were off the trees and piled high on the trail, which looks benign at first but is deceptively dangerous.  We couldn’t see rocks and roots and holes and it was difficult to gauge the depth.  White blazes became essential to follow because we seldom could see the bare trail.  Leaves are also very slippery even when they aren’t wet.  Over the course of the day Cathy and I each fell twice, Becky three times, serious slippin’, slidin’, hurtin’ falls with bruises and small cuts. 

Becky:  it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

On Cove Mountain, perhaps the strangest bent tree I’ve ever seen

We hiked three miles with no landmarks approach- ing the top of Cove Mountain, hard to judge our distance.   I could feel myself tanking and we all needed to stop to fuel up.  The wind was brisk and we looked for a protected place out of the wind and hunkered down to eat a late lunch.  Ten minutes later we saw this gorgeous view (but it would have been too windy to eat here anyway).

Looking at North Mountain

Then the highlight of this section:  Dragon’s Tooth, a Silurian sandstone monolith (for you rock people) in a rock outcropping with a broad view of Catawba Valley.  Just a couple of other people there, unlike the crowds on a weekend, but we got our photo taken.  We were lucky to have the place to ourselves for a little while. 

At Dragon’s Tooth

Climbing up (or down?)

Becky was the bravest as she made it to the top…but crawling back down wasn’t easy.  Cathy and I wimped out at that last bit of scrambling.

Cathy, Becky and me at Dragon's Tooth

The AT northbound descending from Dragon’s Tooth was technical in some places, a couple of ladders and some iron handholds driven into the rocks.  This was slow going and again I was glad that there were no other people to work around. 

At Lost Spectacles Gap we passed the side trail to the parking lot access for Dragon's Tooth day trippers.

At Viewpoint Rock

We crossed VA 624 and walked through a series of open pastures and stiles

And wooden bridges over streams

A mile-and-a-half later we crossed VA 785 and faced a crazy steep climb through open pasture and into woods to the top of Catawba Mountain, where we stopped to rest and regroup.  At this point we admitted that distance and time were not in our favor and we would run out of daylight before the end of our hike.  Now the question was:  how long would we hike in the dark?  We all had headlamps…

Along the rocky ridge top locally known as Sawtooth Ridge we followed ups and downs, taking care looking for blazes and picking our way through more deep leaves.  Cathy took another fall and this time it hurt.  As the sun sunk far down below the mountains, the sky glowed a beautiful pink-orange – and then it was dark. 

We didn’t have a good idea of how far we were from the end but hoped it was only a short distance.  Not so.  Becky’s headlamp didn’t work consistently, flashing on and off like a lightning bug, and we all slowed our paces significantly.  Over an hour later, we emerged at our parking lot on VA 311.  No photos, no cheers for the end of my AT project in Virginia.  But I didn’t feel disappointment as much as I felt relief to be out of the woods.

Overall, though, it was a grand day, hiking with good friends, and Dragon’s Tooth is a very special place.  Any day in the woods is a gift.

What next?

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” ~John Muir.

“When the wind blows, you know that somewhere in the mountains it has found the answers you were looking for.  The pull of the horizon overcomes the inertia of reason…and you just have to go.”  ~Vikram Oberoi