Friday, March 7, 2014
Grandfather Mountain – 10/19/13 – 6 Miles…Or So
I have a confession: I’ve lived in North Carolina for 32 years and never hiked at Grandfather Mountain. While you NC folks gasp in shock, I’ll tell the rest of you about this unique place.
Grandfather Mountain is the highest point of the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is so named because its rocky profile suggests a reclining old man’s face. Rising nearly 6,000 feet, it consists of rugged terrain with hidden caves and significant cliffs and rock outcroppings. Until 2008 Grandfather Mountain was privately owned and operated as a tourist attraction with a gift shop, picnic areas, bears on display, a thrilling “mile-high” swinging bridge connecting two rocky peaks, and hiking trails that climbed over, around and sometimes through the boulder-strewn crest. When the owner passed away, negotiations began for the state of North Carolina to preserve 2,456 acres as a state park and an even broader footprint is in conservancy. Part of the Grandfather Mountain attraction is still operated privately by a stewardship foundation, including the swinging bridge area, and a fee is charged, but hiking trails can be accessed free from other points.
The famous Linn Cove Viaduct portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway passes at the base of Grandfather Mountain, as does the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (also called the Tanawha Trail), and an amazing view of the Grandfather’s profile is from Rough Ridge on the MST. I’ve been all around Grandfather but never hiked on his face. Today is the day.
My friend Carol, a former Girl Scout volunteer and a fellow hiker from my Smokies 900 days, joined me. The drive was foggy and drizzly. We paid the fee for the attraction entrance so we could park closer to the trailhead we wanted to start from and hopefully check out the swinging bridge after our hike.
As the road wound up the mountain we left the clouds below
Very chilly and breezy start. Grandfather Mountain is known for its wind speed records. The highest recorded to date is 120.7 mph on December 21, 2013.
Signage is very detailed, including what time they want you outta there. People often over- estimate their hiking speed, and even those who know how to estimate well can be surprised at the rough terrain here. Grandfather Trail has been called one of the most technical mountain hikes without climbing equipment east of the Mississippi. Sure enough, Carol and I were much slower than on a “normal” trail. We did not finish in time to go to the swinging bridge. Out and back to Calloway Peak (the high point) was our goal, which we attained, but it took a lot of time and effort. No two miles per hour today.
Mountain ash berries mean fall
From the parking area we took the Grandfather Trail Extension for .6 miles to connect to the main Grandfather Trail. Turning right, we soon reached Grandfather Gap. Easy stuff so far? From this point forward our progress was slow and deliberate. Felt like a challenge course with cables and ladders to go up and down and around. A couple of times I wished for cables where there were none as we crept across slanted rock faces, being careful to use three points of contact.
Carol on the cables
Me progressing up a ladder
A rest stop – the great thing about hiking the Grand- father Trail is that you can have an awesome experience without going very far. Having lunch and turning around right here would count as a great day.
A long distance view with fall color in the fore- ground. I’m sorry to admit my lack of knowledge about the mountain range in the far distance. Roan Highlands? The Blacks? I can’t even remember the direction. Next time I’ll take better notes. Today I concentrated on hanging on.
A close-up showing Table Rock and Hawksbill, the two peaks that look like a cat’s ears.
Cloud cover like cotton batting inside a quilt
Access to MacRae Peak is via a ladder 20+ feet tall and then more crablike walking along a slope until we could stand upright on solid footing. The view from MacRae was inspiring. The clouds had rolled right up to the base of Grandmother Mountain (with communications tower on top). This is another turnaround point at which hikers can call it a good day.
Next up: the Chute, a ridiculous rock climb that I just know will be worse coming back down. Where are all the darn ladders now? At this point the camera was tucked safely away. I was so traumatized by the Chute that I don’t remember seeing the Attic Window feature at all. Carol was being a super sport. I knew her knees were hurting with the big steps up and down, but she was holding up like a trooper. And my knees were beginning to screech a little bit, too.
The remaining mile to Calloway Peak was almost anti-climatic after the travails thus far. Alpine Meadow camping area looks really great but I think I’d prefer Cliffside, the next camping area, because it seems more secluded and protected from the wind, relatively speaking. (Remember, the highest wind speeds are recorded here.)
At last, the push up to Calloway Peak and – surprise! – more ladders, even a short one laid almost horizontally to span the distance between two boulders. By now we were encountering legions of people (okay, maybe a dozen).
The view from Calloway Peak looking toward MacRae Peak, only 100 feet shorter
The fun and games were only halfway over – now for the return trip! We got to crawl down the Chute, but we opted to skip MacRae Peak again and turned right onto the Underwood Trail, a half-mile detour that skirts around the section full of ladders (although it has one of its own). This trail is recommended in case of severe weather on MacRae Peak. It’s not a picnic, though, as it has a couple of lengthy boulder fields that require careful stepping. We passed a couple of people with dogs that were turning back because the terrain was too rocky for the pups.
The ladder on Underwood Trail
Final tally: about 6 miles in 6 hours. This included photo ops and snack time, but altogether one of the most difficult trails I’ve ever hiked, and practically in my own back yard. Carol and I had destroyed knees, atrophied legs, and a great time. I look forward to hiking at Grandfather again.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 10/7/13 – VA 615 Southbound to VA 623 Garden Mountain – 8.8 miles
Zipped up cozy in our little tent, we soon heard little raindrops begin pitter-pattering, then big drops pounding louder and louder. Thunder and lightning and moderate to hard rain all night long, alternately lulling us to sleep and then jolting us awake. We eventually woke for good at first (feeble) light. What to do today? Looking at the weather radar (how did we manage before smart phones?) we were surprised to see that the rain should clear out by 9:00 a.m. That means…
Breakfast! We packed up a very wet tent and some wet clothes that we had left laying on the picnic table and drove into the little intersection of Rural Retreat for some grits and biscuits and gravy. Jim loves local restaurants and this was as local as it gets. A great way to start his birthday!
Sure enough, the clouds were dissipating, blue sky was peeking through, but we had lost a little time so I chose to shorten my hike to about 9 miles. As we drove to the trailhead, the wet autumn leaves were bursting with color. Going to be a very good day.
Picking up where I left off yesterday, the bridge over Laurel Creek – always nice to have the trail direction confirmed
Laurel Creek looking good after the overnight rain
I never realized that there are so many different wilderness areas in Virginia. Note the shotgun shells on top of this sign for Hunting Camp Creek Wilderness. And here is a fantastic website and map of all the wilderness areas in the United States.
Leaf color underfoot
Passed by the Jenkins Shelter
Shelters are usually located near a water source, which means at or near a low point, which means it doesn’t matter which direction you are hiking – you will now be going UP. From Jenkins Shelter the trail ascended 1,800 feet in about 2.5 miles, but what got my attention even more was the roughness of the terrain.
A little rocky
But covered in pretty leaves
The last mile-and-a-half leveled out to begin the long walk along the ridge of Garden Mountain. I passed through broad open forest paralleling an unending wall of bare rock on my left-hand side, the real top of the ridge. On my right side I caught occasional glimpses of the valley called Burke’s Garden, the highest valley in Virginia, about 8.5 miles long and 4 miles wide. It is named for James Burke, a member of the party that first surveyed it in 1748. Jim discovered this paradise and rode his bike there all day yesterday. We can thank the 19th century local farmers for being unwilling to sell their land to representatives of the wealthy Vanderbilt family, causing good old George Vanderbilt to build his Biltmore Estate near Asheville, NC instead. (Double thanks because much of George’s land eventually became part of Pisgah National Forest.) This website gives a good description and an amazing aerial photograph of Burke’s Garden, which is completely ringed by one mountain (Clinch Mountain).
A lovely view down into of Burke’s Garden. Here I barely missed stepping on a very large garter snake relaxing in the grass.
Gravel Road VA 623, my stopping point for the day, leads two miles down into Burke’s Garden, so Jim and I took the scenic route, driving up and down the small paved roads and stopping at the little country store. There are several Amish families in the valley and a mix of farm trucks and horse-and-buggy rigs. There is not a single stop light or fast food restaurant anywhere. So peaceful and idyllic.
I was as tired after 8 miles today as I was after 16 miles yesterday. A good thing we were heading home.
“It is easier to go down a hill than up, but the view is best from the top”. ~Arnold Bennett
Friday, February 21, 2014
Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 10/6/13 – VA 611 Southbound to VA 615 – 15.9 Miles
Early October, the best month of the year to visit an American national park for the comfortable temperatures, changing leaves and to give thanks for another season. Shenandoah National Park awaits!
Unless the great American Congress decides to throw a hissy fit and shut down all government functions. What? You say that may have unintended consequences? All actions have consequences, fellas.
Our plans to spend Jim’s long birthday weekend at Shenandoah NP were scuttled. We had reservations for a private cabin outside the park and the owner very graciously let us change our dates to the last weekend of October. Surely by then the government would work out its issues. The leaf color would be gone but the hiking and biking weather would still be favorable.
For now the national parks and all national public lands were closed. The Appalachian Trail is a national park but impossible to “close” because of its multiple access points. So where else in Virginia can I get onto the trail? Well, there’s an obscure section south of Pearisburg where state roads criss-cross the mountain ridges that the AT runs along.
(By the way, National Forest campgrounds were also closed and day use areas were gated.)
Jim drove me to the area where the AT crosses VA Highway 611 (a gravel road), familiar to me from my first hike of this project when Don the shuttle driver dropped me off and asked me if I had read a book entitled “Murder On The Appalachian Trail.” This time I intended to hike southbound along Brushy Mountain, cross over I-77 and finish at another gravel road crossing, VA 615.
As I got out of the car at the pull-out I narrowly avoided stepping on a deer carcass, neatly skinned just hours ago. (I took a photo but have chosen not to include it here.) The hunters didn’t trouble themselves to throw the remains into the woods. A bit of a disconcerting start to the day. For the first mile or so I kept thinking about hunters, swiveling my head around continually to see if I could spot any of them. Then I convinced myself they don’t walk that far in and relaxed into the hike. But…why did Jim let me go? Later he said he was anxious also but reasoned, as I did, that hunters don’t go too far off into the woods.
Hhmmm…a nice warm day in the woods and no spiderwebs. Are there hunters ahead of me?
The trees enveloped me and I soon was entranced by the familiar but ever- changing trail. There was lots more color in the depths of the forest than appeared from the road, walking underneath the canopy of reds, yellows, oranges and browns. I enjoyed nearly 7 miles of gentle undulating ridge walking, no intersections, no points of interest marked on my trail map. I watched leaves fall and wondered if I was the only human who would take note of them before they turned brown and decomposed and became part of the earth that would generate a new cycle of growth.
And more colors
As I passed this lovely yellow tree in the previous picture, I turned around and saw a magnificent spiderweb a couple of feet above my head with a big fat fellow working diligently at his craft. His movements shook the web but after many attempts I got a decent picture of him.
About 5 miles in, as I sat for a short rest break, a southbound thru-hiker passed by. I asked if he saw the deer carcass at VA 611 and he said no, but he saw one at the road crossing before that one and he had seen some cross bow hunters earlier in the week. He continued on past me, but at VA 612 I leapfrogged him and two other southbounders as they ate lunch. Those two must be the ones who were ahead of me knocking down the spiderwebs.
At VA 612 the AT follows the paved road.
The overpass for I-77
More paved road leads up to cross US 52, then the AT follows a gravel road for a mile or so before dipping back into the woods for the last 6.5 miles of today’s route. I texted Jim that I was moving fast and would finish early. He replied that he might not reach our arranged end point before me because he had discovered the valley called Burke’s Garden, a cyclist’s paradise (more on that tomorrow).
Trail Boss Trail is an old section of the AT named for a former member of the Virginia Tech Outdoor Club and leader of the ATC’s Konnarock trail crew. You’ve got to do a lot of work to get a trail named after you.
My last couple of miles was a gentle downhill as I strolled to VA 615. I noted some very nice campsites on the north side of the gravel road. We were in the market for a campsite for the night since Stoney Fork Campground (part of Washington-Jefferson National Forest) was closed. Did I mention that there was a government shutdown?
On the south side of VA 615 is Laurel Creek and a huge stone and wood bridge crosses it to continue the AT south- bound. Jim was there to meet me after all and we relaxed by the creek, evaluating our options for the night. Jim didn’t want to camp right there, didn’t trust leaving the car by the road. We went in search of a commercial campground I had found online – Deer Trail Park Campground near Bland, VA, a nice little mom-and-pop operation. Since it was a Sunday night, we were the only campers. We set up our tent, took hot showers, and went into the town of Wytheville for supper.
We didn’t prepare as thoroughly for camping as we should. Jim had no headlamp, no towel, and I forgot flip-flops, a long- sleeved hiking shirt. I guess we never fully committed before the last-minute change of plans because we kept hoping the shutdown insanity would lift and we could get to our cabin in Shenandoah. Oh well…
Rain forecast for tomorrow – what to do?
“I am rich today with autumn’s gold.” ~Gladys Harp
Monday, February 17, 2014
Smokies Retreat – 9/16/13 - Thomas Divide Trail/Stone Pile Gap Trail – 6.2 Miles
Recently I was invited to lead a mid-week hike sponsored by the Friends Of The Smokies. I snuck away a little early for an extra day and night of serenity in the mountains. Since I am working on my second go-round of hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains NP, I chose a simple half-day hike to connect a few trails in the Deep Creek area.
The hike may be interesting if it starts with a hawk feather stuck in a bratwurst at the gate
A short distance from the Thomas Divide Trail trailhead is the well-kept Watson Cemetery (also called the Wiggins Cemetery). I especially liked the nickname Fate, who probably had some interesting stories to tell. I hope he had a good 84 years.
This portion of the Thomas Divide Trail is nothing to write home about, a wide road bed that climbs steeply to the intersection with Indian Creek Motor Trail. I turned around there, but Thomas Divide continues for another 10 miles all the way Newfound Gap Road. It’s much more enjoyable when it gets up on the ridge line and narrows down to trail width.
I backtracked to Stone Pile Gap, a delightful little trail that few people bother with. Today I had some company. Forgive me in advance for my appropriation of the “Sound Of Music” selection, I couldn’t help myself. I hummed the tune for the rest of the day.
Standing in a Ray of sun
Me as quiet as can be
‘Cause Far away I knew she’d run
So I held my camera high
La …I had to hold my breath…
Has-Ty, she’s going to get away
Then I scored this photo of that Doe…
After my hike I set up home-away-from-home in the Deep Creek Campground, almost deserted on a Tuesday. It was still mid-afternoon. I dragged my camp chair down to the water, read my book, and perhaps I dozed off. Nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do. Sublime. More people need to try this. I am certain that this world would be a better place if everyone took a nature break every once in a while.
"Keep close to nature's heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." ~John Muir