Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What, Another Birthday?

Solo Backpack in the Smokies – 4-11-12 – Mingus Creek Trail/Newton Bald Trail/Thomas Divide Trail/Deeplow Gap Trail – 13.7 Miles

Beginning with my 50th I’ve spent every birthday on a trail for a significant project, the Smokies 900 or the Mountains-to-SeaTrail.  What about this year?  It’s a Wednesday, so it would be a solo hike, but the SB6K project didn’t seem to click.  What about…a solo backpack trip?  Now that’s a phrase I never thought would apply to me.  Certainly a new threshold, a new line to cross.  I’ve hiked alone all day, slept in frontcountry campgrounds alone all night, but never spent the night alone in the deep dark woods.

What better place to try this new challenge than the Great Smoky Mountains?  I’ve been meaning to hike those trails again anyway.  Poring over the map looking for possible overnight loop hikes, I got that tingly feeling that I love.  I chose a figure-eight type route and a backcountry campsite that should be empty on a weeknight.  I left a very detailed hike plan with my husband and left home very early on Wednesday morning. 

The weather had been warmer than normal for a couple of weeks but a cold front was coming through, predicting nighttime temps in the high 20’s.  The drive through the mountains was very windy and I had a few thoughts about branches and trees falling on tents.  The Blue Ridge Parkway was closed near the entrance to the Smokies so I had to drive through the town of Cherokee, normally something I don’t mind but I wasn’t in the mood for it today.  I wanted to get on the trail.  I stopped at the Occonaluftee Visitor Center and self-registered for my campsite.  As I stuffed my form into the box I wondered just how often they check those things.

I parked at the Mingus Mill parking lot and made a last minute check of my gear – anything I can leave out or should add in?  My trail map split apart as I consulted it one more time.  Oh, well, I’ll have to rely on piecing it together.  A good thing I had studied it so much beforehand. 

Before I started on the trail I visited the slave cemetery a short walk from the far corner of the parking lot.  There are six graves evidenced by rough uncarved sandstones.

Oops, forgot my new hiking poles – gotta go back.

Beginning of my adventure – Mingus Mill in the background

Mingus Creek Trail begins as a wide road bed.  Along the first mile there are remnants of many buildings from old homesteads and the CCC camp that operated there.  Flowers bloomed profusely along the path.

Some type of phlox

White erect trillium (distinguished by its dark center)

At 1.25 miles the trail split.  Mingus Creek Trail continued to the left.  The unnamed trail to the right leads .8 miles to another cemetery.  One of my interests in re-hiking the Smokies is to take more time investigating the cemeteries.  Some are harder to find than others.  I had planned to visit this particular one on my return hike the next day, but something told me to go sooner rather than later…so I did.  

Mingus Creek Cemetery seemed a bit forlorn, no flowers on any graves

Mrs. Polly Mathis, born 1888, died 1934

I backtracked to Mingus Creek Trail and began the long climb.  In the first few minutes I met four descending hikers, the only people I saw before returning to the parking lot the next afternoon.  Now it was just me, myself and I. 


Showy orchis

The Mingus Creek Trail actually leaves Mingus Creek very early on and instead follows Madcap Branch up the mountainside, crossing several times (fun name, “Madcap”).  At about the three-mile mark the trail intersects with Deeplow Gap Trail, which I will return to this spot tomorrow.  After a brief quarter-mile respite of near level walking, Mingus Creek Trail resumes its climb – a total of six miles and 3,000 feet of ascent from the beginning.  But going slow and steady, not trying to keep up with anyone, it felt great. 

At 5,080 feet Mingus Creek Trail meets Newton Bald Trail.  While some balds in the Smokies are managed by the Park service to remain open, Newton is Bald no more, just another wooded mountain top.  There is a big old chestnut tree trunk to rest on while you ponder life, though. 

A bear condo on Newton Bald Trail (see the hole near the top?)  Dead trees that are still standing are called snags and are a very important part of a healthy forest ecosystem, providing home for creatures great and small.  Don’t stick your head in one of these holes.

I continued on for .7 miles along Newton Bald Trail, passing through Campsite #52 sprawled across the trail.  It looks like a great place to camp in good weather, but I wouldn’t want to be huddled there in my tent on that ridge during a bad nighttime thunderstorm.  At the intersection with Thomas Divide Trail I turned left, very much looking forward to some downhill.  The walk down Thomas Divide was just lovely with glimpses of the high ridgeline of the AT to the right.  (If I’d had my glasses I could have really seen the Clingmans Dome tower.)  A nice breeze was blowing on the western side of Thomas Divide, while on the eastern side I was more protected.  It was a day for short sleeves and gloves.  As I strolled merrily along I hummed and sang “Agnus Dei”.  Alleluias sound so awesome in the outdoors!

At one point on Thomas Divide, as the trail rounded the side of a mountain and curved onto the next one, I noticed that the first part was completely brown, still in winter mode, while the opposite facing side was covered in mayapple foliage.  Imagine a giant letter “V” lying on the ground with one side brown and one side green.  Neat, huh?

After 3.1 miles on Thomas Divide I turned right onto Deeplow Gap Trail, still continuing downhill.  Deeplow Gap Trail has multiple personalities: easy and clear, rocky and covered with debris, and muddy and rutted from horse travel.  Big fun.  It also had a stunning display of crested dwarf iris.

Squaw root – a bear’s favorite spring snack

Rue anemone

As I mentally counted up the miles for the day I began to get a little anxious to find my campsite for the night.  Usually the campsites are well marked but I have walked past a few, so I became intent on scanning the sides of the trail for signs.  And…this one is pretty obvious.

So I was at camp by 6:00 p.m., plenty of time to drop my pack and make a quick .8-mile roundtrip to the end of Deeplow Gap where it meets Indian Creek Trail.  Remember, if you are going to hike all of the Smokies 900 trails, pay attention to those loose ends. 

At my campsite, work to be done:  collect and treat water, boil some for dinner, add to dehydrated meal packet, make some hot tea. 

While all that is rehydrating and steeping, set up tent.  Campsite 51 only had two small tent sites that I could find, so I choose the one farthest from the trail.  (The best thing about Smokies backcountry sites:  cable pulley systems to hang your food away from the critters.) 

Unfortunately, my meal was pretty terrible, too spicy for me, burning my lips that were already tenderized from the windy day.  But…I ate it all because I didn’t want to carry it out the next day.  I opted not to make the chocolate pudding mix that I brought, didn’t think I could eat it all, but I had M&M’s to enjoy. 

After dinner, I read my little book in the surprisingly gradual fading of the light.  The wind had died down and a chill descended.  By 8:00 p.m. I retired to my tent to get warm and settled in.  By 8:45 p.m. it was lights out, sister.  Hope I hear some hooty-owls tonight.

Birthdays are good for you.  Statistics show that the people who have the most live the longest.  ~Larry Lorenzoni

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I'm In Love With Sam Knob

Sam Knob & Chestnut Bald SB6K’s – 3/31/12 – 9+ Miles

Warning:  multiple photos of Sam Knob (which is a mountain, not a person) – I was a little obsessed.

Weather.com is a wonderful resource.  I had a free Saturday and the forecast for Charlotte was rain, rain, rain.  But according to weather.com’s hour-by-hour predictions, if I timed it just right in Pisgah National Forest I could dodge the raindrops.  And that’s just what I did.  In fact, I only encountered rain on the morning drive, and the rest of the day was filled with alternating sunshine and interesting clouds.

I was excited for another solo hike and this time I had new Trek hiking poles.  Lately my old ones were collapsing at unexpected moments (probably too much dirt in them and they wouldn’t tighten properly) and I was ready for some new ones, more lightweight and able to telescope down even smaller.  So near Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 420 I turned onto Forest Road 816 with new gear and an expansive feeling of anticipation in my chest – ready for Sam Knob and Chestnut Bald, two more SB6K’s. 

The purpose of FR 816 is to get hikers a mile off the BRP to access many trails in the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wildernesses.  There is a large parking area and vault toilets at the end of the road and multiple places to pull off along the way and enough hiking to keep you busy for months.  Most of the ten SB6K’s in the Great Balsams section can be dayhiked from the FR 816 parking areas (some hikes might be longer than you like, though).  I hiked to the dual summits of Sam Knob once before, in pouring rain in July 2006, before I knew what an SB6K was, and it wasn’t a full five-mile trip so…time to do it right.

Sam Knob #1, two summits with a dip in between – love at first sight

Sam Knob #2

The trail to Sam Knob crosses open fields worthy of twirling in your Sound of Music skirt.  After about a half-mile the trail splits – turn right for the Sam Knob Summit Trail.  Very quickly I turned again, this time left, and began ascending into the trees.  The trail is very eroded going up this much-loved mountain.  In a couple of places there is a teasing view of what will be laid out to enjoy on the Pisgah buffet at the summit.
Near the top the trail splits again and either choice takes the hiker to a summit.  This is one case where two roads diverge and you should take them both!  First I went to the right.  The wind was strong and clouds were moving quickly all around. 

The prominent bump in the left background is the Devil’s Court- house, an imposing rock outcropping reachable by a short, steep trail from a parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway – but also reachable by me from where I presently stood.  The mountain in the middle foreground is Little Sam Knob.  He looks like his hair is drooping rakishly over one eye.  The highest peak in the right background is Mount Hardy, an SB6K which I conquered a couple of months ago.  I take great pleasure in being able to orient myself by landmarks to keep track of where I am in the world. 

Where are all the people?  It was a stunning Saturday and the parking lot was full of cars.  I had the place to myself. 

Shuffling over to the other summit (the oh-so-slightly higher of the two) I had a quick snack.  This chunk of quartz is as big as a Volkswagen.  Mount Hardy is the high point in the distance.  The sky is looking quite ominous, eh?

Okay, let’s walk on over to the Devil’s Courthouse.  First I descended the Sam Knob Summit Trail, passed that first intersection and headed towards Flat Laurel Creek.  The trail was wet from recent rains and several wooden footbridges helped keep my feet dry.  I heard the creek long before I saw it and wondered if I would be getting wet after all.  But although the creek was robust, I was able to rock hop across.

And then went back to sit and savor the moment.

On the far side of the creek there is a T intersection – the Flat Laurel Creek Trail.  Turning left, I walked happily along with the creek on my left and Little Sam Knob on my right, looking for my next intersection, a right turn onto Little Sam Knob Trail.  Although this is a wilderness area, signage was very good and I was feeling full of myself.  I passed a wide-looking space on my right but there was no sign so I strode confidently on down the trail…until I got that familiar this-doesn’t-look-right-anymore-I’ve-gone-too-far feeling.  Geez, here we go again.

I backtracked to that wide-looking space, still not convinced it was legit, but it sloped gently up and around the left flank of Little Sam and certainly was a trail.  After about a mile I saw a single yellow blaze on a tree.  Well, this must be it. 

A common reminder of logging days in these mountains

A nice campsite if you don’t mind being in the middle of the trail

My next landmark was at my old friend, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail – took a right turn here towards the Devil’s Courthouse, which is a blue-blazed side trail off of the MST with no designation.  The blue blaze trail crosses over the BRP and joins the main steep trail to the summit. 

Here I encount- ered a bit of humanity on a blustery and exciting Saturday, allowing me to be included in the photo this time (Little Sam and Sam Knob in the center #3).  A full circle moment:  a photo of Sam Knob from Devil’s Courthouse to bookend the photo I had taken a couple of hours earlier. 

Sam Knob and Little Sam on the far right #4

One goal completed, one SB6K to go, the part I was most nervous about.  I back- tracked on the MST, bypassed Little Sam Knob Trail and continued on in search of Chestnut Bald.  Similar to Mount Hardy, it does not have a maintained trail but I had vague instructions to help me find the pathway, things like walk ten paces past the big rock and look over your left shoulder for the old NPS boundary sign.

And I found the break in the trees stepping off the right-hand side of the MST, but there was nothing like the trail going up Mount Hardy.  Was I good enough now at “feeling” my way to the top?  It was supposed to be short.  I tried to keep in a straight line and I saw a couple of orange tags.  I kept climbing straight up until there was no more “up” and I declared this tree the summit of Chestnut Bald.  AND I found my way back down.  Triumph!

Back on the MST eastbound, almost immediately I reached a superb lookout point that deserved a few minutes for lunch and celebration of a beautiful day and a mission accomplished.  That is Looking Glass Rock in the distance.  Can you believe I have never climbed it?  Somebody write that down on the list…

Just a couple of miles more on the MST to cross over into Shining Rock Wilderness.  Speaking of Shining, what is that glinting in the underbrush?  It was a tall beer can, looked pretty new.  Well, the least I could do was carry it out.  When I picked it up I felt sloshing, so I turned it upside down to pour out whatever was in it.  Imagine my surprise when a pink, hairless little leg popped out!  I shook the can hard and a tiny, very dead mouse slipped to the ground.  Ugh!  Yes, I shook the can some more to make sure it was truly empty and then stuffed it in a side pocket of my daypack.  Leave no trace, people.

I crossed FR 816 at its midpoint and turned onto the Art Loeb Trail towards the summit of Black Balsam.  I had already tagged this SB6K, along with Tennent Mountain and Grassy Cove Top, on an epic hike to Cold Mountain a couple of years ago, but I wanted to climb it again because it was right there and it was a beautiful day.  However, as I neared the summit I saw perhaps a dozen people on it and more on the trail, and I changed my mind.  I turned left onto the Art Loeb Spur and descended to my car at the end of FR 816 – but not before taking a few more awesome photos of my heartthrobs.

Sam Knob #5

Mount Hardy, Little Sam and Sam Knob #6

I have been fortunate to hike in some exotic locales in the past several years, but this day was as good as it gets for me:  I feel God in these mountains. 

There are many, many awesome areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore and Shining Rock, Middle Prong and Pisgah NF are my favorites.  There is so much to see and the elevation gains and hiking are easy to moderate.  The MST runs like a thread all along these areas, criss-crossing the BRP.  FYI, I researched my route using DannyBernstein’s “Hiking the Carolina Mountains” and the Carolina Mountain Club’s SB6K link.

Take a day and go exploring, won’t you?

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.  ~John Burroughs