Today was my birthday and what better way to spend it than hiking? My last two birthdays were commemorated by beginning and ending my Smokies 900 Challenge and today I had the opportunity to join with some of the same friends for a third time – sounds like a tradition. Don Gardner was leading a CMC hike on a challenging section of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. Danny Bernstein and I decided to tag along and my husband Jim was in on the plan too.
Hike leader Don - wouldn't you follow the flag of your country up a mountain?
This hike was on a Sunday, and the day before I had hiked with the Girl Scouts at South Mountains State Park. Jim also had a big bike ride on Saturday, joining in the Tour de Lure originating in Marion,NC. We met in Marion late Saturday afternoon following our separate adventures, discovering the Jack Frost Dairy Bar on Sugar Hill Road, possibly the best soft ice cream I have ever had in my life (note: closed on Sundays!)
We stayed overnight at the Skyline Village Inn up on the Blue Ridge Parkway – an adventure in itself. The Inn is a 1950’s style motel (“welcome bikers”) with some refurbishing completed, a work still in progress. After dinner and a sample of the live entertainment, we retreated to our room and the balcony overlooking the valley – after all, that’s what we were paying for. (I realized the next day that we were also looking at the big ol' mountain we would be climbing.) I was a little worried that the bikers might be partying late, but bikers are older now and they need their sleep too. We didn’t hear a peep out of them.
We met the CMC hikers early on Sunday morning and Danny presented me with a delicious birthday cake. After our pre-hike snack we made the lengthy shuttle. This section stretches between Highway 80 where it meets the BRP and Highway 221 – no bailout points, boys and girls.
And the magic works every single time – it felt really exhilarating to be out on the trail again.
Today’s group was comprised of experienced strong hikers and I knew I couldn’t whine on this hike (are you reading this, Jeff and Mike?) Right out of the gate the blowdowns and tree damage were horrendous, even though at least one group had been through to scout the hike and did some preliminary cutting along the way. There was nothing we couldn’t get around, but it was tough going at times with lots of scratches and scrapes.
Make no mistake – even with a clear trail this is a tough section of the MST. In fact, the brutal uphill to the top of Woods Mountain was reminiscent of the Green Mountain Trail in Pisgah. What is a switchback? But the ridge was really too narrow for anything but a straight climb and it was never-ending. Molasses flowing uphill would have passed me and I stopped multiple times to gasp and study the flowers (not many). At the top (also about the halfway mark) we took the side trail east to the site of the former Woods Mountain Lookout Tower. The only remnants are the four concrete base corners and an old metal commode (no takers today). Here we enjoyed lounging and lunching in a spot that few have seen.
Of course, what goes up…must crunch knees going down, right? From the tower location we plunged down Betsy Ridge. This portion of the trail alternated between narrow paths and old wide forest roads and conditions ranged from very clear to a hot mess. For a while I hiked with CMC member Carroll Koepplinger, 80 years young, who regaled me with stories of his annual month-long hikes in Spain, France and Switzerland. I had not met Carroll before and have no reason to believe he is not truthful…but some of his stories were eyepoppers! An absolute delight. BTW, soon Carroll and his cohorts are off on another adventure to hike the Jakobsweg in Switzerland.
At lower elevation some flowers were struggling to come out, including these beautiful patches of crested dwarf iris. The last couple of miles were flat and uneventful except for two creek crossings that called for dancing across the water. The MST popped out at Woodlawn Park on US Highway 221 and not a moment too soon, considering I had a 2-hour drive ahead of me. I was one tired birthday girl, ready to say hello to my pillow.
It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how. ~Dr. Seuss