Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Late September View at Clingman's Dome

A few weeks ago I was lured back for my first Smokies hike since finishing the Smokies 900 challenge back in April. My buddy Judy is working on completing her miles and asked me to join her on an overnight loop of (gasp) the AT/Welch Ridge/Hazel Creek/Cold Spring Gap/Welch Ridge/AT with a little side jaunt in-and-out of Bone Valley.

The air was cold but clear, no wind. We had some difficulty leaving the parking lot at Clingman's Dome because of the early morning awesomeness of the views. I narrowed my pre-hike photos down to the following. Click on each one to enlarge and sit back and enjoy the view with me:
All photos are looking down on the NC side of the Park

Who needs the Grand Tetons anyway?

 Next time I'm bringing a lawn chair and staying a while

The clouds look like a river of silver

More layers of mountains today than I have ever counted before 

Can you choose a favorite photo here? I can't.

Is it any wonder why we return to this place over and over again? At last Judy and I set off on another ambitious walk in the woods.  

The mountains are calling and I must go. ~ John Muir

Monday, October 26, 2009

Excuse Me - Could You Tell Me If This Is Peak Leaf Season Yet?

South Mountain State Park – 9/27/09 - High Shoals Falls Loop and Chestnut Knob Trail to Overlook – 7.3 Miles

My good friend Nora, who has long been a flea market cohort and is fast becoming a hiking buddy, joined me for a jaunt to South Mountain State Park, another gem in North Carolina’s state park system located in the rural region south of Morganton, west of Lincolnton, north of Shelby – well, you get the picture. Our original plan was for Saturday, but a heavy rain convinced us to delay until Sunday. Jacob’s Fork River was still running high and we had blue skies to greet us.

A funny thing happened on the interstate – I got a call on my cell phone from a friend in the Carolina Berg Wanderers hiking group. Why was Ruth Ann calling me on a Sunday morning? Had I forgotten about some hike I had signed up for? Turns out Ruth Ann was driving right behind me… and she was headed for South Mountain! Thank goodness, too, because my memory of directions was sketchy. Ruth Ann and her friends led us all the way to the park entrance. She is a frequent visitor to South Mountain and her group was hiking a different loop than we were.

Nora is a novice hiker who spent time outside before entering the consuming world of parenting. She has lots of enthusiasm and a readiness to re-discover the outdoors, and I am finding an increasing delight in guiding people like her to our terrific NC resources. Maybe in addition to Girl Scouts, I can become a resource for women “of a certain age” who are looking for an introduction to outdoor exploration…

 But first, South Mountain State Park: the attractions here are many, with 20 (count ‘em) backpack camping sites in 6 areas of the park, a primitive family camping area (pit toilets, no electricity, first-come basis – Jim and I camped here with our kids about 12 years ago), group camping facilities (can be reserved) and equestrian camping (ditto). There are horse trails, of course, and mountain bike trails, and all trails are open to hikers – watch out! There are also picnic areas and shelters, free of charge. Less than two hours from Charlotte, I consider this about the closest we can get to the real mountains.

Nora and I visited the main attractions for hikers, first following the H.Q. Trail to the High Shoals Falls Loop, criss-crossing Jacob’s Fork River on bridges and climbing up wooden steps. Like Stone Mountain SP, there are lots of manmade structures to protect humans from themselves! Yellow and brown leaves were sticking to the big wet rocks, signaling fall has arrived here. High Shoals Falls was thundering today, the force of the water blowing our hair back, and the normally dry platform was slippery wet.

We continued to climb past the top of the falls and crossed the wide and calm Jacob’s Fork on a long bridge. Surprisingly, very few people were on the trail (I guess we were sinners skipping church to get here early). As we walked across the bridge, I told Nora about our family visit years ago. I remember that our son Brett was wearing his first backpack, getting in shape for backpacking since he had advanced in the ranks to Boy Scouts. I also remember that our youngest daughter, Laura, was wearing denim overall shorts and she fell into the water – yes, we let the child play in the calm water at the top of the waterfall. Many lessons learned since then…

 Nora and I followed the Falls Loop Trail back to the main trail and stopped creekside for a little snack, then headed for another park highlight – Chestnut Knob Overlook. The Chestnut Knob Trail is 2 miles one-way and fairly steep, so a little bit of a cardio workout. Summer flowers were fading but the fungi and lichen were interesting – in fact, Nora was “likin’ the lichen.” Some interesting finds:

Moss, lichen and fungi - oh my!


Cool fungi and leaf arrangement on the end of a log

Fall colors - is it the peak yet? Nora and I enjoyed belly laughs over people who want to know when peak leaf season is. "Excuse me, sir, is this a peak leaf? If it is, it's beautiful - if not, it's just so-so." BTW, This is a sassafras tree.

Chestnut Knob is a rock outcropping with a wide view out to the Kings Mountain range. We took our front row seats for this peaceful scene, enjoying the rest and another little snack. We heard voices approaching..and here came Ruth Ann and friends. Soon a lone hiker joined us, and as he scanned the horizon he said, “Well, I see the Charlotte skyline.” Sure enough, when I put on my glasses and held my tongue just right, there was the faint outline of Charlotte rising from the horizon just like the Emerald City! (Look about a quarter of the way in from the left side of the photo. See it??)

The descent back to the parking area was quick – along the way we saw these unusual purple leaves. We also saw lots more people, as church had finally let out.

On our drive home we stopped at Red Bone Willy’s, a local country store in Lawndale that sells bits of nostalgia, old-fashioned candies, Grape Nehi’s, moon pies and homemade ice cream. Nora and I got the last bit of pumpkin-apple-vanilla yumminess before who walks in? Ruth Ann & Company once again! A delicious ending to a delightful day!
In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. ~Aristotle

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Book Club Gals Go Hiking

Hawksbill Mountain - 9/12/09 - 1.4 Miles

Members of my book club asked me if I would quit talking and take them on a hike. I chose Hawksbill in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, which is a short but challenging hike with million-dollar views. (I first hiked here on Day 6 of Jim's Blue Ridge Parkway adventure trip.) Four of us had a gorgeous Saturday for the two-hour drive up, laughing and chatting and solving life's problems. Suzi, Cindy and Leida were not hikers when we started, but they sure were by the end! The trail is short but the elevation gain is significant (700 feet in .7 miles). Fortunately they were too breathless to curse me before they saw the view, and then all was forgiven. Let's tell the rest of the story in pictures (click on photos to see full screen):
First step for Cindy - sneakers instead of sandals

Ready to conquer the mountain!

Still smiling on the uphill

Suzi with Table Rock in the background

Leida and Cindy have the giggles. I believe Cindy is trying to push Leida off the mountain.

Now climbing is fun!

A perfect photo for the scrapbook - or the Facebook page!

A promise of the fall season ahead

Funny, in the photos the skies look threatening but I don't remember noticing. We ate lunch, enjoyed the cool breezes and the views of Linville Gorge and Grandfather Mountain, and the walk back down was very quick, as was the drive home - more laughing, more talking, maybe some sore muscles, but an enormous feeling of accomplishment all around.

It can be scary to introduce something you love to friends: will they love it too? Will they get bored? Will they think it's a little odd? But sharing Hawksbill with the book club gals was one of my favorite hikes so far. I think from now on I'll call them more hiking friends!

There is no season such delight can bring as summer, autumn, winter and the spring. ~William Browne

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Max Patch

Appalachian Trail Overnight Backpack Trip – 9/5-9/6/09 – Davenport Gap to Max Patch – 17 Miles

For Labor Day weekend some Berg friends planned an overnight section hike on the AT, northbound starting from Davenport Gap where the trail leaves the Great Smoky Mountains NP. The mileage was low and I welcomed the chance for a “leisurely” trip after the Tetons. We left Charlotte on Friday night and camped at the Cosby Campground – felt wonderful to be back in the Park after so long, even if I wasn’t really hiking there.

As we were kicking back and contemplating dinner, a downpour began and continued for essentially the rest of the evening. The six of us huddled under a tarp and cooked black bean burgers and other yummies, then crawled into tents and prayed for the rain to end by morning.

Which it did! Though the clouds stayed and there was a mist in the air, it was certainly great hiking weather. Cathy and I dropped off all the packs and people and then set up our car shuttle (one vehicle at Max Patch, then one at the Big Creek ranger station) and then walked up the gravel road to the trailhead – so she and I had 1.5 miles logged before we actually hit the AT. Cathy’s husband John was waiting with our packs, while Barbara, Ruth Ann and Emily started out ahead of us.

Ah, that first white blaze! It snags you like a lasso and pulls you along. How can I possibly add the AT to my list of challenges? Thru-hiking has never appealed to me because of the time away from home…but completing the AT in North Carolina is intriguing. And what about Tennessee? Don’t forget the first part in Georgia, it’s not all that far away. And of course I love my home state of Virginia…For the rest of the trip we talked about such goals and I pondered. The descent down to Waterville Gap was quick. Fun stuff along the way:

Fall colors gearing up

A great weekend for fun fungi

Whitewater rafters on the Pigeon River

We walked across the Pigeon River on Waterville School Road. This was the first time I had crossed a major road during a hike.

 Notice the white blazes
 underneath the directional arrows at the bottom of the sign

AT trail sign at top of stone steps after crossing the road


Wood aster and goldenrod nodding across the trail

We caught up with the gals about halfway up the ascent of Snowbird Mountain. As we stopped for a breather, a southbound hiker passed by and stopped to chat. She had finished her thru-hike in August and here she was back again to enjoy Max Patch – when she passed through in the spring there was a snowstorm and she pretty much missed the view. I can understand the pull to return to the AT as soon as you have finished it – the goal of completion is intoxicating to think about, but being done is kind of like a hangover – gee, I wish I was still at the party…

 Atop Snowbird Mountain is an FAA tower and the only really good views of the day. Cathy and Emily and I arrived first and checked it out as we waited for the rest of the crew. The gnats were vicious, though, and standing or sitting still was torture.

Emily protesting the gnats

Cathy's fashion statement

Barbara and the white blaze - one of my favorite photos

The long descent to Deep Gap was a bit of a wake-up call compared to the ease of the earlier part of the hike. Our overnight home was .2 miles off the trail at Groundhog Creek Shelter, where a nice young couple was already settled in. We put up tents, strung up the tarp again in case of rain (didn’t need it) and went about the many camp chores.

Interesting fact: the Groundhog Creek Trail that runs through this camping area is part of an old road that runs from Deep Gap down to the Pigeon River at I-40 – and was an original route of the AT in the 1930’s. So even when we were off the AT, we were on the AT!

We chilled in the waning daylight as we each cooked our own suppers around the campfire ring. I especially enjoyed getting to know Emily, who is Ruth Ann’s 17-year-old daughter. Emily has done a good bit of backpacking and is contemplating a thru-hike before she gets old (i.e. 22?) I was impressed with her maturity and especially how she took good care of her mom/hiking partner, sharing stuff and not acting like your typical teenage daughter. Good job, Emily (and Ruth Ann)!

We had a noisy night with cicadas in full force and a company of owls conversing overhead. I stepped out of my tent for my usual pre-dawn potty break and some coyotes began to howl, perhaps three feet from me – or it sounded like it, and I could not see that far. I scrambled back inside the safe walls of my little Big Agnes tent and enjoyed another hour of snoozing. Isn’t it funny how safe we feel inside our little nylon kingdoms? Kind of like a toddler who plays peek-a-boo, we think that if the wild animals can’t see us, they don’t know we are there. They also cannot break through those miraculous steel walls that only weigh a couple of pounds when we carry them on our packs. Are humans really supposed to be the smartest of all creatures?

 The next day was shorter mileage that began with the inevitable uphill pull, this time to the top of Harmon Den Mountain. This entire section of the AT is well graded and well maintained, very enjoyable. Our group spread out and I hiked solo for most of the way, though I occasionally caught glimpses of those ahead of and behind me. Such a great feeling to be walking in the woods! I wish everyone I know could have this experience.

Don’t you love this huge fungus that looks like a clamshell?

Another interesting fungus thingy

We caught up to one another at the intersection with Cherry Creek Trail. While we waited for the entire group to gather I took a zillion photos of this inchworm exploring my backpack. Originally we planned to hike straight to the parking area when we intersected Max Patch Road, but Cathy, Barbara and I decided to continue on the AT to the summit of Max Patch. The others headed for the car to drop their packs and then climb by a different trail to the summit. But if I’m counting AT miles (am I?) I didn’t want to skip this little bit.

Beauty along the trail

Climbing to the top of Max Patch

Max Patch is easy for anyone to walk to, less than half a mile from the parking area. I’ll bet my book club would love this!

As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens. ~Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping