Monday, October 27, 2014

Lookout Towers & Waterfalls - Cherokee, NC

Mount Noble Lookout Tower+ Barnett Knob Lookout Tower + Mingo Falls + Soco Falls – 8/17/14 – 7.2 Miles

Do you always finish one book before starting to read another?  Do you eat all of one delicious food on your plate before eating the next (peas before mashed potatoes)?  I like to complete one book before the next, but sometimes I find myself with two or three going at once because (a) my turn came up for a hard-to-get item at the library; (b) a friend handed me a book and said, “Drop everything and read this NOW;” or (c) in the midst of something heavy and complicated I needed a break with some chic lit. 

You know I’m a hiking list person.  Although I enjoy one-off trips to unique areas, I appreciate lists and guidebooks that take me places that might not hit my radar, on hikes that may be too short to warrant an overnight trip but can be bundled together for a fun day in the same area.  Western NC is chock-filled with waterfalls and lookout towers that rise above the trees, most of them just a short walk from the car.  So in addition to larger hiking projects like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail or the AT in Virginia, I keep an eye on other lists to enhance a trip to the mountains (any mountains).  Two great challenges are the Lookout Tower Challenge and the Waterfall 100 administered by Carolina Mountain Club. 

The day after Jim’s big Blue Ridge Breakaway bike ride was a perfect day for this type of exploration.  I narrowed down the list to two lookout towers and two waterfalls, all easy hikes (well, except maybe the first one).  First up:  Mount Noble Lookout Tower in the CMC challenge created from Peter Barr’s book Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers.  This tower and the Barnett Knob tower (which we visit later in the day) are the only two lookouts on Cherokee Indian Reservation land today near Cherokee, NC.

Peter’s book includes exhaustive research on each tower’s history, construction, current use status (most are inactive) and details of the views.  He also gives detailed directions to trailheads and, where possible, multiple hikes to the towers.  Mount Noble Trail starts from the Oconaluftee Indian Village parking area in Cherokee.  We felt a little like trespassers on this Sunday morning when the Village was closed. 

If you’re in it just for the hiking, this trail is average.  It is well-maintained but unsigned, so take Peter’s hiking narrative with you.  It’s a steep, 2.4-mile trail weaving in and out of finger ridges until it hits a gravel access road about a quarter mile from the tower.  Keep in mind that most lookout tower locations are now home to multiple communication monstrosities.  The charm of a single tower on a mountaintop is rare.

The most exciting thing about this hike today was this big bad little garter snake on the trail. 

Jim stepped over him unnoticed, but when I came along it decided to stand its ground.  It was perhaps 18 inches long.  After a few minutes of mutual eyeballing, I realized he wasn’t giving up, so I flicked him (gently) off the trail with my hiking pole.  C’est la vie.

Mount Noble Lookout Tower.  We couldn’t access the cab, just climbed as far as possible up the stairs.

The view if you squint and look between the other junk.  Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my copied pages of Peter’s description of the view so I can’t identify the peaks.

On the return hike we got brave and took a scant trail that looked like it went straight down a ridge rather than circling around for the first half mile.  Every few yards there were trees tagged with orange flag tape.  The tags read “EBCI Survey, Do Not Disturb.”  They didn’t say “no trespassing” so we figured we were safe as long as we didn’t touch.  EBCI stands for Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

Interesting gashes in the trees where the orange tape is tied

Second act:  Mingo Falls.  We visited this waterfall probably 20 years ago.  It’s located just a few miles from Oconaluftee Indian Village, heading out of town on Big Cove Road.  The walk to the falls is measured in hundreds of yards, not miles, but involves some stair climbing to make you feel you’ve put in some effort.  A bridge crosses in front for viewing from a safe distance, although there were some who scrambled on the rocks to get closer.

Mingo Falls:  A near-vertical cascade about 150 feet tall.

On our way out a woman asked me if the walk was “worth it” to see the falls.  How do you answer such a question?  When is a walk in the woods not worth it, even if there is no waterfall?  I always say emphatically, “Yes!”

Round three:  Barnett Knob Lookout Tower.  The access road is reached via the Blue Ridge Parkway as it descends through the Qualla Boundary to its terminus at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The hike is 1.2 miles round trip on a gravel road that feels surprisingly steep, perhaps because it’s not a nice hiking trail.  This tower is still manned during days of high fire danger.

Again, the tower is surrounded by lots of other steel constructions. 

But the view is pretty nice

Finale:  Soco Falls.  Unlike Mingo Falls’ easy access, Soco Falls seems like an accident waiting to happen.  A few hundred yards off of twisty, busy U.S. 19, there are a few pull-off spaces with no visible signage.  The trail looks like it was started with good intentions down to a little viewing station, but there is also a steep scramble where somebody has rigged up ropes for handrails and an honest-to-god rope to swing down to the base of the waterfall. 

Now, I am sometimes willing to take some risks, but seldom if other people are around.  I am not a superior athlete, but I am pretty good at assessing risk.  In this case, however, I didn’t realize how precarious this system was until I was hanging on for dear life. 

The falls were so loud we had to shout to be heard and it felt glorious standing so close to all that power.  As other people began to queue up for the rope swing, we decided to leave before we were witness to a serious injury. 

An all-around great weekend where Jim and I engaged in the outdoor activities we love, both separately and together.  Moral of the story:  wherever you are headed, look over your lists, whether they are hikes or bike routes or wineries.  Variety is the spice of life!

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least - and it is commonly more than that - sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

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