Thursday, July 22, 2010

Another SB6K and Green Knob Fire Tower

MST – Day 26 – 6/17/10 - Greybeard Overlook to Hwy 128 – 8.7 miles

Early start from Greybeard Overlook – 60 degrees, windy and covered in clouds, very different from yesterday. Will we see anything today?

The woods were still dripping from yesterday’s late afternoon rain, getting us soaked. The wind shakes the raindrops out of the trees onto my head. It comes in bursts, rustling the trees and sounding like waves in the ocean. I was a little nervous about falling branches. And, yes, once again we were feeling our way through overgrown vegetation.

Lunch Rocks between Greybeard and Glassmine Falls Overlooks was socked in – no views today. I will have to come back again with a better forecast. This is a wide expanse of mountain laurel and blueberry shrubs that are just beginning to bloom. There are many boulders to stand up on to see above the shrubs and look at the expanse of mountains all around…if I could see more than 50 feet, that is.

But even if the long views are not part of our day, there were two great surprises for close inspection – Gray’s lily (actually red) and purple fringed orchids – stunning. Half a dozen stalks of the orchids were nestled underneath a mountain laurel bush.

 Crossing the Parkway at Balsam Gap, the character of the forest changes dramatically. We paused for a break to fortify ourselves as I was dreading going up Blackstock Knob, 1.6 miles of steep climbing – but it is also an SB6K peak that I am sure to tag without error, since the trail walks right across the high point. As is happening more and more often, I was pleasantly surprised, lots of switchbacks to break up the climb and soft balsam needles underfoot, huge old balsams with that special scent and a Hansel and Gretel feeling. Tiny bits of blue sky appeared in between smudges of clouds.

On top of Blackstock Knob we stopped again, but I forgot to celebrate with my piece of chocolate Danny had given me at the start. (She often does that to keep me going.) I did take a "trail break" to mark the occasion...

Eventually I recognized the spot where Jeff and I intersected the MST during our SB6K quest in June ’09 – and also the spot where I napped while Jeff climbed an unmaintained trail to tag up with the route we couldn’t find from the top. That was one fun day!
This area shows extensive devastation from some storm – a war zone of trees toppled like pick up- stix.

During the last long mile of our hike there were grand views of Mount Mitchell, which we will go up and over on our next hike. Although it's the highest mountain east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet, we have actually done most of the climbing over the past two days. As we approached Highway 128 Danny smelled new-mown grass, but I thought it was tar being spread on the road. Score one for Danny and forgive my poor olfactory sense.

Still early, so we parted ways and I sought out the Green Knob fire tower, only a steep half-mile trail off the Parkway at the Green Knob Overlook. On this weekday afternoon there was nobody there but me and the serenity of the tower, hazy and peaceful . I said my prayer of thanks for the day and for the earth.

My long drive home was poorly timed for traffic in Charlotte. I’m sorry to say that by the time I got to my house all the good hiking vibes were about gone. I will have to change timing and not do that again.

A little ribbon of the Parkway

Read Danny's story of the day here.

Life for two weeks on the mountain tops would show us many things about life during the other fifty weeks down below. -Benton MacKaye

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blazing Eastward

MST – Day 25 – 6/16/10 - Bull Gap to Greybeard Overlook – 11.4 miles

Why am I driving this far this early? I can see the sunrise in my rearview mirror as I head towards the mountains. Because of a commitment the night before, I am paying the price of three hours in the car before my feet are on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail again.

But the views down into the valleys from the Blue Ridge Parkway are lovely. Heavy cotton clouds are settled into the low areas and the sky is clear up above. And it should be a lot cooler up here than the high 90’s that I’ve left behind.

Hmmm. ..a critter sitting on the road. Now it sees me and it jogs back across the road and into the brush. What kind of animal is as large as a dog and has a very short thick tail? A bobcat on the Parkway – what a great omen for adventures ahead!

Danny and I haven’t hiked in a few weeks. A meticulously planned backpacking trip through Linville Gorge had to be postponed because of a family emergency for me and because of a spill that Danny took on a Smokies hike that resulted in a fractured right wrist. Although her splint doesn’t keep her from dayhiking, hefting a backpack and using hiking poles to cross the Linville River was not a necessary risk for her to take with further injury. The good doctor told her to avoid “perilous” activities – a matter of interpretation, don’t you think?

We met at Bull Gap, which we left back in December in cold and rain. Today proved to be the opposite, a hot and humid day. So much for my relief from the Piedmont sauna. All day we were dripping sweat, clothes

Spiderwort was the flower of the day, plus a few pale red columbines, yellow sun drops and vivid red fire pinks.

Fire Pinks

We learned that if we spotted a single bloom of something, soon we would pass a mass of it. Indian pipe looks ghostly, not pure white, sort of like translucent plastic with smudges of dirt. It has no chlorophyll and lives off the roots of other plants. I have only seen a few of these in the Smokies, so coming up on a hillside covered with them was spectacular. So many wonders in the plant kingdom!

A highlight of today was the remains of Rattlesnake Lodge, the summer home of Dr. Chase Ambler of Asheville. Please see Danny’s blog for background – anything I put here would just be plagiarizing her. Like standing in the ruins of the Vanderbilt’s root cellar, I felt transported back to the time when Rattlesnake Lodge was a forest retreat for a wealthy family. Will the mansions up on the ridges be in ruins someday and will future generations hike by them and envision their bygone era?

The rock wall for the spring is behind this fallen tree

Some trail mainte- nance had been done on today’s section, but as was our experience on other parts of the trail, some places have not seen a weed eater this season. The stinging nettles drove me insane, itching and burning. I used my poles to push aside the offending plant, but sometimes the vegetation was above our thighs and the nettles seemed to reach around and sting me from behind. And I thought to myself, I can’t worry about snakes or I would never be able to do this.

We saw at least a dozen batches of bear scat, but no bears today.
Up and over Lane Pinnacle we climbed. This peak itself looks absolutely awesome from its namesake Parkway overlook (sorry, no photo of that).

The MST took us through Craggy Gardens, closed for repairs, so we waved to an empty parking lot and climbed up and up to the bald. This gnarly tree along the trail probably is in thousands of family photos.

The MST white blaze passes through the shelter originally built by the CCC – I was here last year during Jim’s BRP biking adventure. I forgot to make a copy of Walt Weber’s pages to see the ups and downs of today’s hike and 11.4 miles felt unbelievably long. What happened to my 15- to 18-mile Smokies days? But at the end of the day I learned that we had 3900 feet elevation gain! I am really going to miss Walt’s trail profiles after we leave Mount Mitchell behind. I have learned a lot about percentage grades and really like having one more way to orient myself on the trail.

Between Craggy Gardens and our ending point at Greybeard OV were treacherous, very rocky, slippery, stepping-stone size rocks disguised by overgrown vegetation. Danny said that this is one section of trail she will likely never see again in her lifetime and I agree. I reminded myself not to take a single step for granted. Still, there were many slips and one true fall. As my left foot slipped off the steep trail, I hit the ground and torqued my right knee at an ugly angle. It didn’t hurt to walk, but the next morning it was stiff, and bending and squatting the next day was challenging. We bypassed the trailhead to Douglas Falls with just a glance because we were concen- trating on our footsteps. The rest of the hike was an exercise in patience and endurance as we slogged our way towards the Parkway, crossed it and ended at Graybeard Overlook.

 After an arduous shuttle to retrieve cars and set-up for the next day and a long drive back to Asheville, we were rewarded with a real treat: Lenny was our gourmet chef with a fabulous meal prepared. A glass of wine makes a sore knee feel much better. Are we having fun yet? You bet!

 I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. ~G.M. Trevelyan

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Closing the Gap

MST – Day 24 – 5/21/10 – Sleepy Gap to French Broad River – 5.5 Miles

Low mileage today but a very important section – we were finally closing the gap on the west side of Asheville. Back in December we hiked the miles eastward from the French Broad to Bull Gap when the sections further west were inaccessible because of severe weather. It feels good to fill in the missing piece.

Another reason that low mileage was desirable today – rain. As I’ve said before, getting caught in the rain during a hike is one thing, but starting out that way is another head game altogether. Your goal has to be something other than a nice walk in the woods.

The lush forest kept the wet at a tolerable level and we concentrated on wildflowers once again. At the end of this post is an attempt at a comprehensive list of flowers identified during the week.

Multi-flora roses (non-native but beautiful)

We saw odd-looking black mesh contraptions set up in the trees and Danny explained that they are for collecting mast to study how much the forest is producing this season.

Before reaching Highway 191 the trail passes through the North Carolina Arboretum.


View from the French Broad River Bridge After the hike I headed to Camp Occoneechee for a weekend full of energized little girls. What great fun to spend time with tomorrow's women!  

Wildflower list:
Dwarf cinquefoil
Yellow stargrass
Pink lady slippers
Canadian violet
Wild lily of the valley
Solomon’s seal
Solomon’s plume
Hairy buttercup
Rattlesnake hawkweed
Squaw root
Wood betony
Wild geranium
Crested dwarf iris
Mountain spiderwort
Wood anemone
Mountain laurel
Flame azalea
Clinton’s lily
Michaux’s saxifrage
 Dwarf ginseng
Beard tongue

Read Danny’s story of the day here.  

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day. ~Winnie the Pooh

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I Could Get Used To This

MST – Day 23 - Highway 151 to Sleepy Gap – 10 Miles

Car shuttling continues to be the big challenge in our MST quest. Each day we have to factor in the time required for moving cars. Yesterday we left a car at the end of today’s hike and this morning Lenny drove us to our trailhead. Awaiting us was another beautiful day of walking in the mountains.

Road closure signs at the Highway 151 intersection indicate an interruption due to a rock slide near Ferrin Knob. Traffic was still allowed past here with the provision that there would be a turnaround at some point ahead. For “thru-drivers” the detour is quite lengthy (thus Lenny's kind taxi service would save us hours at the end of the day.)

Knee-high vegetation was on the menu again today. Grasshoppers entertained us by leaping ahead of our footsteps. They were very quick and I sensed movement out of the corner of my eye rather than seeing them en masse. They sounded like raindrops on the leaves. When we stopped, they stopped. Kinda creepy, but in a fun way…

Flower ID day – I counted at least 30 flowers and ignored a few others (yellow ones seem especially hard to identify). I have yet to get good macro photos with my camera. We were treated to a couple more pink ladyslippers. Giant Solomon’s seals seem to be my favorites, arching gracefully with perfectly formed buds dangling underneath. Turk’s cap lilies were budding every which way and will make a spectacular show in a few weeks.

Flame azalea

Goat's Beard

The MST crosses the parkway several times at overlooks. On this clear day we enjoyed a long snack break at Mills River Overlook. It was hard to leave the view and get back on the trail.

Mills River Valley Overlook


View from Stony Bald Overlook (duh)

View from Beaver Dam Gap

We walked the two-mile section that Lenny maintains. He had been hard at work and we graded him an A+, especially considering that he had to walk a few extra miles (while carrying a weed-eater) to get to his section because of the road closure. He and Danny also maintain a five-mile section of the AT.

Finally we encountered the “we-really- mean-it- now” road closure signs. No chance of seeing the rock slide area, though, because we were going over Ferrin Knob, not around it.

The steep pull up Ferrin Knob loomed ahead all morning but was over before I knew it. Concrete blocks remain from a former fire tower at the summit, as well obvious campfires.
With just 5.5 miles remaining to close our trail gap to Highway 191 in Asheville, Danny and I were regretting that we had to stop at Sleepy Gap where our car was parked. However, we had planned conserva- tively, not knowing what trail conditions we would find and working around the parkway closure. All in all, today’s trail was very good with only a handful of blowdowns that were easily crossed. And the mountain laurel is beginning to bloom.

Read Danny’s story of the day here.  

An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. ~Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Rare Treat (and Ice Cream Too!)

MST – Day 22 – 5/19/10 – Highway 276 to Highway 151 – 10 Miles

I began today’s hike with a little trepidation. Two weeks off had not erased my memory of the wretched trail conditions on our last outing. But at the first step the trail dropped quickly down and was a very pleasant surprise - not a single obstruction to negotiate around. Perhaps the major attraction along this section was a reason to clear it early: the Pisgah Inn.

Spring flowers have been entertaining us the last few weeks and Danny was keeping her eye out for a rarity - pink ladyslippers. The location of ladyslippers is not usually publicized because of fear of poaching, and finding them is a treat. And…what do you think we saw, right beside the trail, begging to be photographed? Lots of other wildflowers were on display today, particularly wood betony, which I remember from hiking here last year while my husband Jim did his Blue Ridge Parkway bike ride (no good photos of wood betony this year, though). While I am not a diehard flower fanatic, I find it very entertaining to learn the names and ID them on the trails. Hope it helps to sharpen my brain.
Clinton's lily

Cinnamon ferns - see the cinnamon stick?


A sea of ferns

Many creek crossings today – why am I surprised?
 We were walking just below the ridge line where springs form Bear Wallow Brook and Poplar Creek and flow down the mountains.

A gentle but steady uphill pulled us towards the mountaintop Pisgah Inn. At one point we heard a very large animal moving around. The noise lasted long enough to know it was not a tree limb falling, but we couldn’t see anything. It’s funny how you hold your breath and wait for a 400-pound bear to appear, and when it doesn’t, you go on your merry way and don’t expect to see it appear anywhere else. Everyone asks me if I’m afraid of hiking alone because of bears, but every time I’ve seen a bear I’ve been with another person and making noise. Perhaps we have passed 500 bears and didn’t know it.

At the Inn we ate our home- packed lunch on the porch, lingering as long as possible in the sunshine. A nice visitor took our photo for posterity. Then we were on our way again.

Soon we met three local women hikers and stopped to chat. One asked about our hiking route and where our end point was. When I was vague, she seemed concerned that we did not know where we were going and I changed the subject. Later I thought of a standard answer: although you don’t look like you would break our windows or kidnap us, it’s our safety policy not to tell anyone where our car is parked.

The section of the MST past the Pisgah Inn is also known as the Buck Springs Lodge Trail and there are a couple of other trails that intersect it, so you have to pay attention. Buck Springs Lodge was George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge. All that remains is partial walls of the root cellar – but what a view for a root cellar!

From this point the MST is also known as the Shut-In Trail because of the closeness of the mountain laurel and trees. The Shut-In Trail/MST follows the route that Vanderbilt and his guests took between his home (Biltmore Estate) and the lodge (17 miles). Today it ends at Highway 191. A popular trail race is staged here each year (going uphill) and I do not ever plan to participate.

Mount Pisgah itself is off a side trail from the MST and well worth a visit, but Danny and I have both hiked it several times so we set our steps for our challenge of the day, a very steep haul up Little Pisgah Mountain. From there we had a longer and steeper downhill to Highway 151, our ending point. All in all, today’s hike seemed ridiculously easy, with pink ladyslippers to boot. And then there was ice cream at Dolly’s!

Click here for Danny's review of the day.  

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~ John Muir

Friday, July 2, 2010

MST: Shining Rock, Graveyard Fields & Skinny Dip Falls

MST – Day 21 – 5/6/10 – Forest Service Road 816 to Highway 276 – 10.3 Miles

I was very excited about today’s route going through Graveyard Fields, anticipating walking across some balds and rubbing up against Shining Rock Wilderness. CMC trail builders have taken special care with the section climbing up the south side of Black Balsam, including boardwalks and stairs.

Mount Pisgah in the distance


On the edge of Black Balsam

Twisted trees - evidence of the hard winter

Halloween face on the white blaze

We passed quickly through Graveyard Fields in a tunnel of mountain laurel with a couple of rare views of the area’s waterfalls, but we had a treat coming – Yellowstone Falls, locally known as Skinny Dip Falls. Danny wondered aloud why such features have more than one name, and I speculated that many times a place is known for some local event or person. For example, there is a crossroads near my hometown called Dead Man’s Curve, but you won’t find that written on any map. Skinny Dip Falls is multiple cascades ending in large pools, perfect for swimming in your bathing suit or your birthday suit! There are also lots of rocks to linger on and forget that the only way out of here is up.

Solomon’s seal getting huge, very graceful draping over the trail

The trail section between Cherry Cove Overlook and Bennet Gap displayed the most brutal trail conditions I have ever seen. Given the many miles of the MST, there is much work for the trail maintainers that takes months of volunteer time. This section is probably less used than most others and has to wait its turn. We went from carefully picking our way through blowdowns to simply stomping over them. Our feet were not touching the ground. As we were negotiating across one tangle, we could already see the next one ahead. Slow going and extremely tiring and discouraging as we envisioned the miles we still had ahead of us. The air was very, very hot and the branches scratched at us until our legs and arms looked like we’d been through a war. I really felt a low as we scrambled our way through the mess.

Dreaded Green Knob was our big climb near the end of the day, and after seeing the trail conditions I thought it would be a nightmare . We rested at the bottom of it, had a snack and a mental adjustment to begin the assault. BUT the first half up to the top was pristine – thank you trail angels! The down side was not as clear but still nowhere near what we had been through. The view from the top (near Penny Rock) is wonderful. That’s Looking Glass Rock in the distance.

Only 10.3 miles total today, but my rear end was whipped. The hike took nearly 8 hours. Danny and I both had long drives home and then long meetings to attend (she with CMC, me with the Girl Scouts). But after a couple of days of couch potato therapy I was thinking about the next hike.

Read Danny's blog of the day here.

“You don’t want to take on Mother Nature (unprepared). She’ll spank you and send you back home every time.” ~ Lee Lewis, Search and Rescue volunteer in the Smokies.