Sunday, November 2, 2014

Vacation: What Do Cherohala, Joyce Kilmer and Joanna Bald Have In Common? Me.

Cherohala Skyway Hikes, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Joanna Bald Lookout Tower – 9/2/14 – 8 Miles

Always wanted to spend a week in the mountains but never done anything about it.  Always used a week’s vacation time to go further from home.  Closed our eyes, took a deep breath and booked a (very) nice cabin near Bryson City for 6 nights for the first week of September.  Pulled out all the guidebooks, poured a glass of wine and began to consider the possibilities.

As usual, Jim and I wanted to combine biking and hiking interests, but adding to the mix was goofing-off-sitting-around time.  Could we stand to stay at our cabin all day one day?  Could we limit eating meals out and cook at our cabin instead?  Although it was an adjustment in mindset, it turned out…sort of.

Our cabin sat on a mountain- side near Alarka, NC, about 10 minutes from Bryson City by car but a world away in our minds.  We spent all of our first day getting to the cabin via the Blue Ridge Parkway, allowing time for Jim to do a bike ride and for me to explore a couple of off-the-beaten-path waterfalls.  The next morning we slept in, sat on the porch with our coffee watching the clouds drift in the space between us and the next mountain.  We visited the Nantahala Outdoor Center, watched kayakers and ate lunch overlooking the river.  We strolled through (both) streets of Bryson City, made a stop at Nanatahala Brewing Company.  We cooked dinner at the cabin and toasted our first day with a glass of wine in the hot tub.  

Enough relaxing.  Let’s do something!  Cherohala Skyway, here we come!  A designated National Scenic Byway dedicated in 1996, the Skyway passes through Cherokee National Forest and Nantahala National Forest, combining the two names into “Cherohala.”  Similar in design to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the two-lane scenic road is 43 miles long and connects Tellico Plains, TN and Robbinsville, NC.  The Cherohala Skyway sees much less traffic than the BRP, has views uninterrupted by human endeavors, and thus is a motorcycle and bicycle lover’s dream. 

While Jim chased his adventures via bike, I tried out some of the short hikes along the NC portion of the Skyway outlined in Danny Bernstein’s book Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.  My favorite was Huckleberry Knob, a 2.5-mile out-and-back hike to the highest point in Graham County and a grand view of the Unicoi Mountains.  (Interesting fact:  Huckleberry Knob is 5,560 feet in elevation and is the fourth most prominent mountain in North Carolina.)  The hike begins on an old forest road lined shoulder high with late summer flowers, jewelweed, fall asters and filmy angelica.  Bees, bees, bees buzzing loudly but intent on their job so I wasn’t disturbed. 

Flower show today:  Pussy toes

Filmy angelica

White wood aster - hard for me to distinguish this from whorled wood aster.  Both are favorites of mine because of their delicate intricacy

Whorled wood aster 
Black-eyed Susan


Love-vine (beaked dodder) wraps around the stems of other plants

The double track old roadbed goes through open meadows and the bald Huckleberry Knob rises up to the left.

The trail dips into trees and climbs up shortly before opening again into another field and the last few hundred yards to the summit.  Clouds were coming up fast but this was such a beautiful place that I didn’t want to hurry back down. 

Campfire at the summit.  I sat on the ground and ate a quick lunch as the wind picked up.

The mountains of western NC hold many stories.  Huckleberry Knob is the final resting place of two lumberjacks who stopped there on a cold night in 1899 while walking home to Robbinsville, NC for Christmas from their jobs in Tellico Plains, TN.  A hunter discovered their bodies the following fall with jugs of whiskey scattered around.  A white cross and a plaque commemorate their passing.  

After exploring along the Cherohala Skyway I realized that I had time for a visit to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a tract of old-growth hardwood forest that was never logged and thus is home to some of the largest trees in the southeast.  It is part of the larger Nantahala National Forest and, along with the Slickrock Creek area, is designated as the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.  North Carolina and Tennessee share this wilderness area totaling over 17,000 acres. 

Joyce Kilmer was a soldier killed in action in France during World War I and the Veterans of Foreign Affairs requested a fitting stand of trees be designated as a memorial to him.  Kilmer was a poet noted for his writings about common beauties of nature and his best-known poem entitled “Trees.”  

I followed the two-mile figure-eight loop Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail and regretted that I was walking it alone because there was no one to photograph beside the magnificent trees to indicate their scale.  The forest claims more than 100 tree species including yellow poplar, oak, basswood, beech, and sycamore, many over 400 years old.  The most impressive poplars are more than 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall.  

Roots running out from the base of this tree like rivelets of water

Jim and I met at the Forest Service office and decided we had a little time left before driving back to Alarka.  We went in search of Joanna Bald Lookout Tower, one from the tower challenge list.  We drove through the town of Robbinsville and took a gravel forest road winding up and up and up.  The mountain called Joanna Bald is the tallest of the Snowbird Mountains.  The hunt for the right turnoff was frustrating and we learned that some forest roads are now closed.  Fortunately, we finally found our way. 

The hike is 1.2 miles round trip on a gravel road.  Beautiful late summer flowers along the way, including Joe pye weed taller than me.

Joanna Bald Lookout Tower shares its space with communication towers

Locked access to the catwalk

But the view from the top of the stairs is impressive

We ended our long day back at our cabin with a little daylight and more wine and more hot tub.  Got to get our money’s worth.

“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.”

~ Joyce Kilmer

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