Thursday, June 25, 2015

Prelude To A Bike Ride: Upper Creek Falls (With A Hawksbill Teaser)

Upper Creek Falls – Pisgah National Forest - 5/15/15 – 1.5 Miles

Jim signed up to participate in the Beech Mountain Metric bike ride, scheduled for a very early Saturday morning start.  He always invites me along on these trips, so I can watch the inspiring start and amazing finish – and entertain myself in between.  Well, this time I said yes.  

Despite the shaky weather conditions – a little rain and fog – on Friday we wandered our way towards the North Carolina high country.  Tucked away off of Highway 181, a sweet little hike leads to Upper Falls in the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest.  [By now it should be obvious that Pisgah National Forest spreads like an ink blot across western NC.]  I found details for this waterfall hike in Kevin Adams’ book North Carolina Waterfalls. It’s also on Carolina Mountain Club’s waterfall challenge list.  There was one car in the parking area but we didn’t see anyone else on the trail.

Seemed like a good day for Jim to test drive my hiking poles.  I followed behind and could see that he didn’t fully buy into them at first.  It does take some practice.  By the end of the loop he was using the poles more naturally and relying on them on the uphill.  I was definitely uncomfortable without them, feeling less balanced and constantly holding onto trees on the steep downhill.  

Hiking the 1.5-mile loop clockwise takes you to the top of the falls first.  The expansive rock is tempting to walk out on, but don’t go too far trying to see over the drop.  You will not be able to tell anyone about it because you will be a goner.

At the top of the falls

Crossing the rock face and continuing clockwise, the trail descended steeply with several side trails shooting off to the right toward the waterfall.  We resisted, as per the guidebook, and continued on the main trail to the obvious path to the bottom.

And…Wow!  Unexpectedly huge. 

Continuing the trail’s descent, I was delighted to find several clumps of Clinton’s lilies in bloom.

Lower Falls of Upper Creek (surely the settlers could have thought of a more unusual name than that?) is a run of small cascades and slides.  One wide step across the flow today, but looked like it could be challenging after a big rain. 

After crossing the creek, the trail headed back up the mountainside via a long series of switchbacks.  It looked like the original “trail” was one steep shortcut, still quite visible and probably used by many, and the switchbacks double the distance, but Jim and I stayed faithful to the trail builders trying to minimize the erosion.  Lots of pink rhododendron blooms woven into the canopy.

Large boulder area with anchors imbedded for rock climbers

Just a couple of miles further up Highway 181 is the left turn to access Hawksbill, a medium-sized mountain with an expansive rocky summit and the best views of Linville Gorge.  The hike is about 1.6 miles round trip.  Jim and I didn’t visit Hawksbill today, but on Easter Sunday we hiked it with our son Brett. 

Jim, Brett and me on top of Hawksbill.  Grandfather Mountain is the bumpiness in the middle horizon

Brett looking into Linville Gorge

The reason I’m mentioning Hawksbill here is that these two short hikes, Upper Creek Falls and Hawksbill, are an excellent combination for a day trip.  Both trails have some elevation gain and loss, but are doable for just about anyone willing to experience a little heart rate increase, a little heavy breathing, and take his/her time.  The rewards are great.  And then there’s barbecue at Judge’s Riverside in Morganton.  Or Italian cuisine at Sorrento's Bistro in Banner Elk, where we ended up tonight.

Jim's gearing up for his big ride tomorrow and I'm going to hike up Grandfather Mountain

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”   ~Jawaharial Nehru

Friday, June 19, 2015

Smokies 900 Round 2 - Big Creek Flower Show

Smokies 900 Round 2 – 4/24/15 – Big Creek/Swallow Fork/Mt Sterling Ridge/Mt Sterling/Baxter Creek Trails – 17.1 Miles

Hiking friend Danny Bernstein invited me to participate in a Smokies 900 discussion panel at the Smokies Life Magazine reception as part of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (whew!) in Gatlinburg, TN.  Danny authored a wonderful article about Smokies 900 completers for the magazine’s spring 2015 issue.  I was flattered and eager to sit on the panel as an excuse to visit my happy place, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Driving all the way to Gatlinburg from Charlotte for a 5:00 p.m. event, looks like I’ll have to spend the night…

Been a couple of years since I saw the Tennessee side of the Smokies and I was jittery with anticipation.  Everyday life is complicated and I needed to unplug and enjoy an infusion of outdoors.  As I turned off Highway 40 at Exit 451, Dolly Parton’s celebration of the Smokies came on the radio:  “My Mountains, My Home.”  Is that a tear in my eye?

Big Creek, the only Smokies front- country camp- ground that I haven’t spent a night in. First come, first serve, only 12 sites, I was lucky enough to set up camp right beside the boisterous namesake. 

Big Creek

After a very short time lingering by the water, I drove on twisty-turny Highway 32 to Highway 321 and Gatlinburg.  I met Danny an hour before the event started, not enough time to truly catch up but we did our best as we ate Kilwin’s ice cream.  The reception and panel discussion was great fun, with many audience members tallying up more Smokies miles than the panelists.  (P.S.  I was vindicated to hear several 900 milers agree with me that the “worst” trail in the Park is Cold Spring Gap.)

Twisty-turny again (thank goodness it was still daylight) back to Big Creek and I met my next-campsite neighbors, a man and woman from Louisville.  They had hiked up to Mount Sterling via Baxter Creek Trail, part of my planned route for tomorrow.  They started a little campfire and produced wine flasks and a bottle of fireball whisky.  I was compelled to swap backpacking stories for an hour before turning in.  And what a sweet treat to sleep on a flat tent pad – my last several nights out have been on sloping backcountry sites. 

Daylight woke me at 6:00 a.m.  I ate a little breakfast, packed up, moved my car to the picnic parking area where I said hello to a backpacker getting ready to head out at the same time:  7:05 a.m.  A little morning chill.  I’ve done this exact hike before but felt as excited as if I were discovering a new country –  a different season, and every day in the Smokies is a new adventure.

Big Creek Trail is a wide old road bed following alongside Big Creek and the area is rich with history of native Americans, settlers and logging operations.  The trail itself was built by the CCC in the 1930’s.  The same crew constructed the Mount Sterling fire tower that I would pass later in the day.  The five miles of Big Creek Trail that I walked rises about 1,500 feet, barely noticeable, and is a wildflower mecca.  As I walked the broad trail I looked mostly to the right bank, stopping constantly to photograph the blooming plants, not trying to win awards, just trying to record what I saw to help in identification later.  If I had tried to look at the left-hand side too, I’d still be there.

Enough words, now let’s look at the pictures:

Stonecrop in abundance every few steps

Purple phacelia

Wild geranium

Carolina vetch

Doll’s-eyes - the white flowers look pretty and benign...

... while the fruits that appear in late summer are what gives this plant its creepy name (this photo from a Sept 2008 Smokies hike)

Squaw-root (no chlorophyll, a parasite that grows on oak roots)

A break in the action to check out one of Big Creek’s many cascades - looking for Midnight Hole but this wasn't it

Fifty yards to another cascade

Showy orchis, one of 30 orchids found in GSMNP


Found it!  Midnight Hole, a six-foot plunge with a wide, deep pool

Midnight Hole - this place will be full of swimmers during the summer

Mouse Creek Falls, where the backpacker and I caught up with each other

Dog hobble - one of my favorites

Bridge across Big Creek


Crested dwarf iris

Umbrella leaf - I get the name confused as elephant ear, because the leaves are as big as... well, an elephant's ear!

Umbrella leaf bloom

Meadow parsnip

Golden ragwort

Phlox and foamflower combo

Dwarf cinquefoil

Fringed phacelia

At 5.2 miles Big Creek Trail reaches Walnut Bottom and Campsite #37.  This is an easy backpack- ing destina- tion, a base camp to explore more trails of the park, or a turnaround point for a respectable 10-mile wildflower dayhike (enjoy the opposite side bank on the return trip).  My route turned left at 5.1 miles onto Swallow Fork Trail, nicely graded with several rock hop creek crossings as the trail climbs.  The ascent felt effortless as I took my time. 

Sweet white or northern white or Canadian Violet? 

A jaunty sweet white trillium seems to be saying hello

Clumps of sweet white trillium

Bridge across Swallow Fork

Yellow mandarin

A sad wake robin past its prime

McGinty Creek

Peeking at Mt Guyot

At Pretty Hollow Gap I took a lunch break.  This looks like a very tempting place to camp, but backcountry camping in the Park is restricted to designated sites and shelters which must be reserved.

Pretty Hollow Gap – spring beauties everywhere!

Spring beauties ready for their closeup

Ah, I thought, congratulating myself on getting all the uphill done with ease.  Then as I started on the 1.4-mile section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail I realized that my vague recollection of it was inaccurate.  More elevation gain than I expected.  But I didn’t mind as I walked among the shady hemlocks. 

Then there was that half-mile of Mount Sterling Trail that isn’t designated on the little $1 map, more uphill.  I was surprised to see hoarfrost coming up from the ground. 

Highlight of my hike:  Mount Sterling fire tower

There is a backcountry campsite at the base, an open grassy area and some flat spots under the trees, very popular for nighttime lookouts from the top of the tower.  The six flights of stairs seem trustworthy but the flooring inside the cab is layers of plywood that look damp and rotten.  I was aware of being all alone as I climbed carefully up and down. 

Looking north from Mount Sterling tower.  I could see Max Patch, although it doesn't show up in the photo

Looking southwest from Mount Sterling tower – Mount Guyot is the high point of the left frame and Low Gap is in the right frame

Baxter Creek Trail, the last leg of the hike, and I was feeling confident with no aches or fatigue.  Only 6.1 miles!  But with 4,100 feet of descent, this is the steepest stretch of trail in the Park.  At the tower the chill was back, and although I had on shorts and short sleeves, I put my gloves on.  

Several different types of moss, none of which I can identify, grow among the spruce and fir trees.  Loved this moss-covered boulder.

An old sentinel

Freshly cut blowdown

Can someone please tell me what this is?

Painted trilliums were abundant along this trail. Some had dark forest green leaves and some had bright green leaves.

Dozens of painted trilliums

Common blue violet

More white violets

Not satisfied with identifying blooms, I also was on the lookout for emerging foliage and proud of myself for recognizing some.  But this - what is this?  Yellow bead lily?  Clinton’s lily?  So much to learn.

Indian cucumber foliage

Rattlesnake plantain foliage

Mayapple foliage

Two miles on Baxter Creek Trail and I started to feel it, knees hurting, wondering if blisters were underway.  But what are you gonna do?  Four more miles.  Keep looking at the flowers.  I could feel the temperature go up as the trail went down. 

False Solomon seal

Solomon’s seal (bad photo)


Brook lettuce

Yellow trillium

Purple phacelia bringing me home

All together over the course of the day I identified 43 different wildflowers.  Not pictured are:

dutchman’s breeches
squirrel corn
one fire pink on Big Creek Trail
star chickweed
bishop’s cap
trout lily
wood anemone
rue anemone
round leaved violet
Halberd-leaved violet
sweet cicely

This was one of the best days of my hiking life.  

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees.  I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’”  ~Sylvia Plath