Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Rare Treat - Clingmans Dome In Snow On a Sunny Day

Wild Women of Smokemont – Day Two – 10/30/11 – Clingmans Dome

Fact:  On the last day of a camping trip, all plans for a delicious hot camp breakfast go out the window. 

Fact:  On the last day of a camping trip, all items that were carefully packed for the trip can be tossed into the cars to be sorted out back at home.

Fact:  On the last day of a camping trip (without showers), all Wild Women are exceptionally beautiful and do not need mirrors for confirmation.

Fact:  On the last day of a camping trip, stopping by an antique mall on the way home may be necessary.

On this frosty morning the Smokemont rangers told me that Clingmans Dome Road was open again, so we quickly ate, packed up and drove to the high point of the Smokies.  The beauty of the day is best conveyed in pictures:

Ready for a steep half-mile climb

Red mountain ash berries encased in ice make the sky look even bluer

Snow on balsam needles

Snow on cow parsnip (I may be making that one up)

Looking southeast towards Fontana

Looking north at Mt LeConte

Looking southwest at Thunderhead and southbound AT

Like a watercolor painting

And again

A special signpost

A little snack before the long drive home

Being in the Great Smoky Mountains always revives and replenishes my spirit.  Perhaps the fact that I can’t go there every day is what keeps it special for me.  I love this magnificent place any way I can get it, either hiking alone, with backpacking friends in the backcountry, or introducing it to newbies.

“Anybody who says the scenery gets old is not paying attention.”  ~ Cecil Rowe, oldest person to complete the Smokies 900 (age 78)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

There Go Those Wild Women Again

Wild Women of Smokemont – Day One - 10-28-11 – AT/Kephart Prong – 6 Miles

Who remembers the Wild Women of Cataloochee from May 2011?  I certainly do.  One of the most enjoyable weekends I have spent outside, introducing the Great Smoky Mountains to friends.  Well, I know you can’t replicate an experience in every detail, but a variation of “friends camping and hiking and eating in the Smokies” in the fall sounded like fun – so I booked sites at Smokemont Campground for late October and sent out a call for Wild Women.

Six Wild Women, two from the Cataloochee adventure and four newbies, said yes and pulled together equipment and food planning.  Like last time, no one knew everyone else in the group except for me.  Most had work commitments until late on Friday, so Nora and I were the advance team to set up tents, etc.  We drove through sunshine, then fog, then rain from Charlotte to Maggie Valley and into the Smokies.  Setting up tents in the rain and then sitting in them for six hours waiting for other people to arrive was not appealing, so we made an executive decision:  hotel rooms in Cherokee for the night.  Leadership can be tough.

Now Nora and I had time for some fun.   First we investi- gated the little white church at the entrance to Smokemont Campground.  Next we cruised through Cherokee and stopped at Tribal Grounds for a great cup of coffee.  Still have plenty of time and stomachs are growling…let’s drive over to Bryson City.  We shopped, enjoyed a glass of wine at the Cork & Bean and had a delicious meal at Jimmy Mac’s.  Ya know, ya gotta be flexible when you’re camping.

Back at the unnamed hotel in Cherokee that was not so great (check your bed linens and request new ones if you are in doubt), the next carload of Wild Women pulled up and crashed for the night.  Early Saturday morning the last two Wild Women arrived and we headed up Newfound Gap Road toward Clingmans Dome.  The plan was to hike the Appalachian Trail from Clingmans Dome down to Newfound Gap, about 7 miles. 

However...Clingmans Dome Road was closed.  All the rain down in the valley was snow and ice at the high elevations.  The parking lot at Newfound Gap was crazy with people taking pictures in the snow.  What to do?  Well, let’s just hike the AT in the other direction. 

Did I mention it was cold?

A rare treat hiking on the frosty AT

A long view into North Carolina - do you see the ribbon of Newfound Gap Road?

We hiked in for about a mile, but not everyone was prepared for the slippery conditions, so we formulated a new plan, returned to our cars and drove back down on Newfound Gap Road to the Kephart Prong Trail.  I chose this alternative because the trail is gentle, passes some interesting artifacts, and ends at the Kephart Shelter, something I thought the Wild Women would be interested to see.  No snow down this low, too.  A couple of the Wild Women opted to go into Cherokee instead, so five of us crossed the bridge over the Oconaluftee River to begin the Kephart Prong Trail.

Herding cats Wild Women in preparation for the hike

Kephart Prong Trail begins as a wide road bed passing through a former Civilian Conservation Corps Camp that operated from 1933 to 1942.  During World War II the camp included conscientious objectors.  Beneath the leaf litter are occasional patches of asphalt.  Still standing is a 6' by 5' sign stone sign plaque, a stone water fountain and a hearth and chimney.  

The sky was a beautiful blue and the fall colors were hanging on.  Bridges criss-crossed Kephart Prong as the trail climbed gently upward.  One Wild Woman felt the strain in her hiking boots from spending most work days in pretty high heels.  

Nora crossing a bridge over Kephart Prong

A narrower bridge, a little more caution

Kephart Prong was running high and feisty

At the shelter we met several back- packers.  Since it was late afternoon, they were preparing to spend the night, including three men trying to dry out from last night’s drenching rain at their campsite.  (Sorry, I got so wrapped up in talking to the backpackers that I forgot to get a photo of the shelter.)  I don’t think the Wild Women were enticed into shelter backpacking just yet.

The two-mile walk back flew quickly and we drove on back to our campsites at Smokemont.  Nobody was mentioning a hotel room, even though the overnight temperatures were forecast to be in the high 20’s.

Stephanie (a long-time Girl Scout friend) and Fanny (a new Girl Scout friend) setting up their tent

Ditto Joan and Leida

Aside from hiking, of course, campfire cooking was the highlight of the trip.  Thank goodness for Stephanie, who is a fire master and kept it burning for the night.

Everyone working on food prep

Leida – smiling as always

Fanny preparing the Dutch oven for biscuits

Isn’t Fanny the cutest thing ever?

We barely finished eating and cleaning up before Wild Women began dropping like flies.  I think Leida was in her tent by 7:30.  Even Stephanie gave it up by 9:30 and we doused the fire.  I made sure everyone had extra clothes, sleeping pads and even extra sleeping bags.  The temp dropped to 28 degrees.  I heard a few snores.

And there was more wonderful waiting for us the next day.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Florence Nature Preserve

Florence Nature Preserve – 10/8/11 – 7 Miles

The first two weekends after my return from the Death Valley/Mount Whitney trip were consumed with obligations and the let-down feeling after a big trip:  how can I maintain that excitement in ordinary life?  And will the greener but smaller mountains here at home now seem dull compared to the awesomeness of the jutting rock towers out west?

Let’s go see. 

The third Saturday back home was all mine and I chose a new-to-me hike I’d seen in Danny’s “Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage” and also on the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy’s website at a place called Florence Nature Preserve.  (CMLC first appeared on my radar when my local Girl Scout council’s resident camp was sold and the new owner, working with CMLC, put part of the land into conservatorship – what a wonderful gift.) 

Florence Nature Preserve is a 600-acre gem west of the towns of Chimney Rock and Bat Cave.  I was a bit skeptical of the website’s directions to the trailhead, looking for “a grassy parking area…most recognizable by a rock wall and stone chimney.”  Would I be able to see that while driving on a winding mountain road?  The answer is…oh, yeah. 

(This parking area is new since Danny’s book was published.  Her trailhead no longer has public access.  Check the FNP website page of CMLC here.)  FYI, the trail map from the website is essential for exploring the preserve, since it is surrounded by private landowners and there are several trails that split off to private property.  The trails are very well blazed with color markers, but there are numerous intersections and the same colors are used at opposite ends of the Preserve, so be sure you know which yellow trail you’re on.  My route roughly followed Danny’s but starting from the new parking area.

From the parking area the new Little Mt. Pisgah Trail rises steeply and passes an old building. 

Fall is here

Once the Preserve was created, Carolina Mountain Club improved the trails and built footbridges

Always remember to look up - blue skies and fall colors

Always remember to look down – Virginia creeper

Another footbridge

Sassafrass, my favorite tree

Oak? But which kind?

I should know what this is by now

The trails in Florence Nature Preserve are not dramatic, mostly gentle with a pleasant stream crossing every now and then.  The highlight of the hike was a side trail to Rattlesnake Knob, a large rock area with a view through the leaves out across a small valley. 

I was a week or so early – soon there would be a full blast of color.

Something built a home and moved in here

On this gorgeous October Saturday I met just one other person, a mountain biker whom I suspect should not have been mountain biking.  Otherwise I could whistle, hum and sing to my heart’s content, only disturbing the wildlife.  Florence Nature Preserve is a wonderful place to take children for an interesting ramble in the woods, to play in the streams, climb on the rocks and explore the old building.  And top it off with a stop for apple cider at one of the roadside country stores in Bat Cave. 

Conclusion:  the mountains out west are majestic and exciting, but the familiar thrill of being in the North Carolina mountains still zings through me every time. 

“There’s no place like home.”  ~Dorothy