Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pisgah National Forest: Cat Gap Loop & John Rock

Cat Gap Loop Trail/John Rock Trail/Art Loeb Trail/Butter Gap Trail – Pisgah National Forest - 8/16/14 – 12 Miles

My husband loves to ride his bike in the mountains and during the good weather months he participates in one or two charity/challenge rides per month in different locations around western NC or VA.  He always invites me to come along to watch the start.  But…what do I do after that?  I usually politely decline and go hiking somewhere else.  Occasionally, though, the location is good for both of us.  The Blue Ridge Breakaway at Lake Junaluska was perfect.

We arrived on Friday and took a walk around the picturesque resort.  Jim checked in and got his goody bag.  We drove into nearby Waynesville for a pizza supper.  In our quest to eat well and sleep cheap, we camped at the Lake Junaluska campground.  Snoozed peacefully in our little tent. 

Saturday morning, bright and early, Jim was ready for his 100-mile ride, a portion of it on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Good luck, honey!

The hike that I ultimately chose wasn’t terribly convenient, about an hour away on the eastern side of the Parkway, but I’d had my eye on this part of Pisgah National Forest.  My route included the Cat Gap Loop hike from Danny Bernstein’s guidebook Hiking the Carolina Mountains plus some extra miles.  Picture a bowtie around a man’s neck, a circle with a figure 8 in the front center.   The hike included some doubling over but with a purpose.  Carolina Mountain Club administers a hiking challenge called the Pisgah 400 – yes, similar to the Smokies 900.  I’ve never focused on the P400 but one day I may take it on, so it’s prudent to pay attention to the trail map and cover any little bits and pieces - and there are many because nothing in Pisgah NF goes in a straight line.

Starting on the Cat Gap Loop Trail from the Pisgah Center For Wildlife Education and Fish Hatchery parking lot, it was hard to tell whether I was ahead of the Saturday crowd.  Less than a mile in, I passed this tent city along Horse Cove Creek.  Looks like Boy Scouts to me.  Is everyone still sleeping or are they on the trails somewhere?  

When I reached the junction with the John Rock Trail I had not yet met anyone on the trail.  Now, I’d hiked to John Rock once before with friends on a cold, rainy, foggy day and couldn’t see a thing.  So today I made a snap decision to take the inner loop to John Rock.  The weather was fine and just maybe there wouldn’t be a crowd.

Good decision:  had the view from John Rock to Looking Glass Rock all to myself.

Skip the next paragraph unless you majored in logistics and mapmaking in college.

I continued on John Rock Trail to its reconnection with Cat Gap Loop Trail at Horse Cove Gap.  Then came the part that only makes sense to “completers” who want to hike every mile of trail on a map.  I turned left on Cat Gap Loop and walked back to the beginning of John Rock Trail, then did an about-face and backtracked to Horse Cove Gap.  Ready to move forward?  Well, there’s the other half of that figure 8 on the bowtie.  From the gap I went straight ahead onto the Cat Gap Bypass Trail, turned left onto Cat Gap Loop again, passed through Cat Gap itself and circled back yet again to Horse Cove Gap.  Then…another backtrack to Gat Gap. 

Y’all still with me? 

A ridiculously eroded trail:  Cat Gap Bypass

What sound did this tree make when it split?

Here I left Cat Gap whatever behind for a while and stepped onto the Art Loeb Trail, a 30.7-mile trail named in 1969 in honor of the avid hiker and leader of Carolina Mountain Club, a year after he passed away.  (I’ve walked different parts of the Art Loeb and it is high on my list of trails to complete in one trip sometime, a good overnight backpacking endeavor.)

I was nearly outnumbered by people with unleashed dogs today.  You just can’t fight it sometimes or you will have no peace of mind, just accept that if you hike in popular areas on a weekend you will run into this mentality.

The Art Loeb Trail passes this nice campsite near the base of Cedar Rock.

Butter Gap Shelter – I passed by here on my prior hike to John Rock.  The shelter is in a sad state of repair and I wouldn’t choose to sleep here. 

But someone liked the area well enough to move in.  Looks like they plan on staying a while.

I watched this leaf float down from its branch and land softly on the path at my feet – the first sign of fall?  (Of course, I’m writing this way after the fact…)  When I’m hiking I often think about things like this, that I am the only person that saw that leaf fall. Practicing being in the present moment.

A short distance past the shelter I reached Butter Gap, a broad intersection of several trails, some not marked.  Taking a break there were four men, what I call affectionately and unapologetically “good ol’ boys” wearing blue jeans, tee shirts and ball caps, leaning on walking sticks.  They were very friendly, asking me how far I was hiking today.  As I pulled out my trail map to figure out which way to turn, they urged me to consult Bob because he’d been hiking there all his life and knew every trail from every direction.  Bob did set me straight on where my trail was.  I asked the guys where their wives were and they said, oh, them women didn’t like walking so much and getting out of breath.  I said to be sure and report that they had seen one woman who was out here having the time of her life.  

My route now was on the Butter Gap Trail, and I began to encounter more dayhikers making the big loop that includes Cedar Rock and John Rock.  Along Butter Gap Trail is Grogan Creek Falls, very robust and noisy.  A short scramble down the embankment took me right to the base of the falls.  Miraculously, I was again alone for a peaceful moment.

The next point of interest was Pickleshimer Fields, named after the family that lived there long ago.

Yellow fringed orchid

Queen Anne’s lace

Cardinal flower

At the next junction I found myself once again on Cat Gap Loop Trail, where a right turn would carry me back up the mountain toward John Rock, so I made sure to stay left.  Very soon I heard loud rushing water and checked in on Cedar Rock Creek Falls.  For the third time I found myself enjoying nature’s highlight without human company.  How was this possible?  I think many casual hikers don’t read the guidebooks ahead of time and/or they don’t know how to look for side trails to points of interest. 

The last points of interest today were people, not places.  As I came around a curve in the trail I almost literally stumbled over a group of 10 backpackers taking a break, a freshmen orientation group from Duke University out on a multi-day trip.  They chattered about how awesome their experience was, but they looked ready to be done.  Only a couple of miles to go! 

Just when you think you could identify a backpacker in any lineup, you meet someone on the trail who doesn’t fit the typical look.  Just before I finished my hike I met two young guys hiking in for an overnight, one with a bright yellow Mohawk and the other sporting a purple puff of hair on his forehead.  A good reminder to me not to stereotype, especially after the conversation with the good ol’ boys about women not wanting to get sweaty.  

Back in the parking lot after 12 miles of views, waterfalls and interesting people, here’s a fresh pack of Boy Scouts ready to hit the trail.  My son was active in Boy Scouts.  In fact, he went all the way through from Cub Scouts to earning his Eagle Award.  Despite their points of controversy, I give much credit to the organization for their dedication to outdoor experiences for boys.

An hour’s drive back to Lake Junaluska to find Jim, who had “crushed” his bike ride and was kicking back with friends at the hospitality tent.  We cleaned up and went into Waynesville again looking for fine dining, which we found and can recommend at Frog’s Leap Public House, a farm-to-table experience.  Our server introduced himself:  “Hi, my name is Neville and I’ll be your Sherpa this evening.  I’m going to take you to the mountaintop.”  A perfect ending to a great day.

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."  ~Rachel Carson

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