Friday, March 7, 2014

Grandfather Mountain State Park

Grandfather Mountain – 10/19/13 – 6 Miles…Or So

I have a confession:  I’ve lived in North Carolina for 32 years and never hiked at Grandfather Mountain.  While you NC folks gasp in shock, I’ll tell the rest of you about this unique place. 

Grandfather Mountain is the highest point of the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is so named because its rocky profile suggests a reclining old man’s face.  Rising nearly 6,000 feet, it consists of rugged terrain with hidden caves and significant cliffs and rock outcroppings.  Until 2008 Grandfather Mountain was privately owned and operated as a tourist attraction with a gift shop, picnic areas, bears on display, a thrilling “mile-high” swinging bridge connecting two rocky peaks, and hiking trails that climbed over, around and sometimes through the boulder-strewn crest.  When the owner passed away, negotiations began for the state of North Carolina to preserve 2,456 acres as a state park and an even broader footprint is in conservancy.  Part of the Grandfather Mountain attraction is still operated privately by a stewardship foundation, including the swinging bridge area, and a fee is charged, but hiking trails can be accessed free from other points.

The famous Linn Cove Viaduct portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway passes at the base of Grandfather Mountain, as does the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (also called the Tanawha Trail), and an amazing view of the Grandfather’s profile is from Rough Ridge on the MST.  I’ve been all around Grandfather but never hiked on his face.  Today is the day.

My friend Carol, a former Girl Scout volunteer and a fellow hiker from my Smokies 900 days, joined me.  The drive was foggy and drizzly.  We paid the fee for the attraction entrance so we could park closer to the trailhead we wanted to start from and hopefully check out the swinging bridge after our hike. 

As the road wound up the mountain we left the clouds below

Very chilly and breezy start.  Grandfather Mountain is known for its wind speed records.  The highest recorded to date is 120.7 mph on December 21, 2013. 

Signage is very detailed, including what time they want you outta there.  People often over- estimate their hiking speed, and even those who know how to estimate well can be surprised at the rough terrain here.  Grandfather Trail has been called one of the most technical mountain hikes without climbing equipment east of the Mississippi.  Sure enough, Carol and I were much slower than on a “normal” trail.  We did not finish in time to go to the swinging bridge.   Out and back to Calloway Peak (the high point) was our goal, which we attained, but it took a lot of time and effort.  No two miles per hour today.

Mountain ash berries mean fall

From the parking area we took the Grandfather Trail Extension for .6 miles to connect to the main Grandfather Trail.  Turning right, we soon reached Grandfather Gap.  Easy stuff so far?  From this point forward our progress was slow and deliberate.  Felt like a challenge course with cables and ladders to go up and down and around.  A couple of times I wished for cables where there were none as we crept across slanted rock faces, being careful to use three points of contact. 

Carol on the cables

Me progressing up a ladder

A rest stop – the great thing about hiking the Grand- father Trail is that you can have an awesome experience without going very far.   Having lunch and turning around right here would count as a great day. 

A long distance view with fall color in the fore- ground.  I’m sorry to admit my lack of knowledge about the mountain range in the far distance.  Roan Highlands?  The Blacks?  I can’t even remember the direction.  Next time I’ll take better notes.  Today I concentrated on hanging on.

A close-up showing Table Rock and Hawksbill, the two peaks that look like a cat’s ears. 

Cloud cover like cotton batting inside a quilt

Cables-and-ladder combination

Access to MacRae Peak is via a ladder 20+ feet tall and then more crablike walking along a slope until we could stand upright on solid footing.  The view from MacRae was inspiring.  The clouds had rolled right up to the base of Grandmother Mountain (with communications tower on top).  This is another turnaround point at which hikers can call it a good day.

Next up:  the Chute, a ridiculous rock climb that I just know will be worse coming back down.  Where are all the darn ladders now?  At this point the camera was tucked safely away.  I was so traumatized by the Chute that I don’t remember seeing the Attic Window feature at all.  Carol was being a super sport.  I knew her knees were hurting with the big steps up and down, but she was holding up like a trooper.  And my knees were beginning to screech a little bit, too.

The remaining mile to Calloway Peak was almost anti-climatic after the travails thus far.  Alpine Meadow camping area looks really great but I think I’d prefer Cliffside, the next camping area, because it seems more secluded and protected from the wind, relatively speaking.  (Remember, the highest wind speeds are recorded here.) 

At last, the push up to Calloway Peak and – surprise! – more ladders, even a short one laid almost horizontally to span the distance between two boulders.  By now we were encountering legions of people (okay, maybe a dozen). 

The view from Calloway Peak looking toward MacRae Peak, only 100 feet shorter

The fun and games were only halfway over – now for the return trip!  We got to crawl down the Chute, but we opted to skip MacRae Peak again and turned right onto the Underwood Trail, a half-mile detour that skirts around the section full of ladders (although it has one of its own).  This trail is recommended in case of severe weather on MacRae Peak.  It’s not a picnic, though, as it has a couple of lengthy boulder fields that require careful stepping.  We passed a couple of people with dogs that were turning back because the terrain was too rocky for the pups. 

The ladder on Underwood Trail

Final tally:  about 6 miles in 6 hours.  This included photo ops and snack time, but altogether one of the most difficult trails I’ve ever hiked, and practically in my own back yard.  Carol and I had destroyed knees, atrophied legs, and a great time.  I look forward to hiking at Grandfather again. 

“You must do the things you think you cannot do.”  ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

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