Sunday, June 19, 2016

AT in TN: Iron Mountain Gap to Carver's Gap - Roan Mountain

Appalachian Trail in TN – 2/29/16 – Iron Mountain Gap to Carver’s Gap – 15.2 miles

During the winter of 2014 I worked on my goal of completing the Virginia section of the AT.  Week after week, my efforts were thwarted by frequent heavy snowfalls and colder than usual temperatures.  Many of my hikes are solo and I take seriously the consequences of an injury in any circumstance, but an injury out alone in the cold is more than I am willing to risk, so the conditions under which I go winter hiking are zero to very little chance of precip and no wind.  More than once in the winter of 2014 I arranged shuttles for dayhikes, only to have the shuttle driver advise me the day before that it might not be safe. 

Not true in this winter of 2016.  Trailheads have been accessible and trail conditions have been tolerable.  Given all that, today’s hike still took me a little bit by surprise high up on Roan Mountain. 

My shuttle driver and I met at Carver’s Gap on Highway 261 just a smidge over the state line in Tennessee.  Carver’s Gap is the jumping off point for roaming around the Roan Highlands, a favorite section of the AT for its high elevation, grassy balds, rhododendron bloom and Sound Of Music vistas.  From there we drove south and she dropped me at Iron Mountain Gap.  I faced 15.2 miles on a chilly but clear winter day with lots of waypoints to keep me entertained on my walk back to Carver’s Gap.

And traces of snow

Notice that “Greesy Creek Gap” has been written in by hand on the trail sign (with creative spelling).  Four miles into my hike I stopped at this gap to eat and saw another hand lettered sign indicating a hostel .6 miles down a side trail.  I met a hiker at the gap who told me the story of a dispute between landowners.  A woman bought a piece of property and created a hiker hostel, but her neighbor did not appreciate the endeavor and began a campaign to make life difficult, mowing the lawn at 6:00 a.m., blocking the driveway, etc., and possibly defacing the sign to remove the name of Greasy Creek Gap.  How much of that is true?  Be sure to read my next blog post.

The trail featured plenty of small ups and downs and intriguing trees.  How does this one stay standing?

Winter sky

I couldn’t tell whether this was a trail maintenance marking or graffiti

The reward for the steep push up Little Rock Knob was a sweeping view into a valley with a Christmas tree farm

And a little more snow

Monument at Hughes Gap

I was 9 miles into my hike and feeling a teensy bit fatigued.  Looking at the elevation profile ahead did not help.  Right in front of me was an intimidating relentless climb up Roan Mountain, 2,245 feet in less than 4 miles.  One foot in front of the other.

The snow got a little deeper, and a little deeper, covering the rocks and roots so that every step needed to be intentional.  My criteria of no precip and no wind was in effect, but I hadn’t expected the amount of snow and definitely did not want to slip and sprain an ankle or break a leg.  I hadn’t seen another hiker since the fellow at Greasy Creek Gap and there weren’t going to be any buses coming by.  I concentrated, taking short steps with my tongue hanging out, and my pace slowed to about one mile per hour.  Whew.

I took just one photo during my ascent, icicles on a cold day.  Near the top, balsam and Fraser firs appeared and transformed the woods into magic land. As the trail continues north, this is the last large area of fir and spruce before reaching New England, other than one small section on Mount Rogers in southwest Virginia and another in Shenandoah National Park. Sound was muffled by the snow and I kept my eyes peeled for tiny tracks and woodland creatures.

Just past the summit of Roan Mountain is Toll House Gap.  Back in the 1880’s General John Wilder took an interest in the beauty of the views and the profusion of rhododendron and built the Cloudland Hotel so all the wealthy folks could enjoy it in comfort.  The hotel operated for about 20 years before being dismantled in 1914 and returning the mountaintop to nature – almost.  Today there is parking, a picnic area, restrooms, boardwalks and viewing stands. 

From the meadow at the Cloudland Hotel site you can see Table Rock and Hawksbill at Linville Gorge and Grandfather Mountain.

Too early to celebrate – there is still a half-mile to Roan High Knob Shelter (more uphill in the snow).  Yes, I skipped the slight side trail to the shelter.  Don’t judge.

The rocky trail (old Hack Line Road) from Roan High Knob down to Carver’s Gap was blanketed in several inches of snow, giving the switchbacked descent a dreamy snowshoe-like quality.  I met one local fellow going up to the top, said during the winter snows he frequently hikes a loop going up the trail and down via the road.  I envied his proximity to this place in all seasons.

The trail turned right off of the wide track and zigzagged through the open forest, crossing several footbridges before connecting to the parking lot at Carver’s Gap.  It was later than I had anticipated finishing the hike and I had a three-hour drive home. All in all, a challenging, invigorating, soulful day in the woods.  

"Only when you drink from the river of silence, shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb..." Kahlil Gibran

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area – 2/12/16 – 6 miles

Ah, young love grows up, grows older, grows stronger.  Jim and I went on our first date on February 12, 1977.  The movie was “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  I don’t remember much about the plot. My attention was completely focused on those blue eyes.

Each year Jim and I mark the occasion, this year by escaping the confines of everyday life for a little exploration in the North Carolina mountains.  Bad weather forecast, you say?  We’ve weathered worse things.
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area (or is it Mount Jefferson State Park?  Sources differ) is a particularly lovely jewel in the treasure trove of NC public lands.  Northeast of Boone, near the town of West Jefferson, it features a winding drive up its namesake mountain with several scenic pulloffs, hiking trails that meander through the woods to rock outcroppings, and a large inviting picnic area and awesome day shelter.  Events and programs are varied and frequent, making me wish I lived close enough to take advantage of them:  living history night hikes, geology hikes, painting the mountain programs (free supplies). 

This particular Friday was “Jim-and-Sharon-have-the-park-all-to-themselves-Day.”  Light snow was blowing from a gray sky and visibility was limited.  The park road was clear at the entrance, though, and we cheered.  I went through a mental checklist of clothing layers: thermal layers, rain pants, rain jacket, thick gloves, headband and hat. 

Clear all the way to the park office, that is.  From that point snow was accumulating on the pavement, but we optimistically followed a set of tire tracks… to the first overlook, where a gate blocked further access.  Hmmm.  Well, we could hike from here maybe? 

We backtracked to the park office to tell the rangers we wanted to park at the first overlook and hike up to the summit.  We picked up a trail map, conferred on the best route, and chatted with the staff about how people stay away on snowy days that are actually great opportunities to explore for animal tracks, etc. 

As we walked back to our car, a ranger driving a snow plow closed the gate there at the park office, ending the debate.  What now?  Put on our gear and walk from here. 

State and county park maps can be confusing and budgets may prohibit frequent updating.  At Mount Jefferson SNA, the Mountain Ridge Trail begins from the park office parking lot, but we couldn’t find the trailhead and needed a ranger to show us where it was hidden in plain sight behind signage.  The map includes the anticipated trail, but it is still being constructed and thus not completed at road crossings. 
For the first couple of miles from the park office we followed flagging tape to stay on the roughed-out route. The climb was moderate, nothing strenuous.  The trail crossed the winding switchback road several times and we scrambled up embankments, had a little difficulty picking up the trail on the other side, especially considering the inch-deep snow. 
Sound was muffled by the gentle light snowfall and deer, turkey and rabbit footprints criss-crossed our path. Visibility continued to be limited at the road switchbacks.

But we didn’t mind because the snow beneath our feet was so beautiful, getting deeper as elevation climbed higher

Rhododendron leaves confirmed that it was really, really cold

The Mountain Ridge Trail popped out at the Jefferson Overlook on the park road but its continuation was not apparent.  The map was sketchy and ambiguous. We made a guess that it will eventually go over a rough, steep rock ledge that will require extensive step construction and rock work.  We scrambled around and over the ledge, feeling sure that the rangers would not be happy about it.  Beyond the rock, we again found flagging tape marking a trail and followed it to the picnic shelter. 

Past the picnic area, trail signage was again confusing (is it me?) for the summit of Mt Jefferson.  We followed the Summit Trail to the restroom building and at the trail split we stayed left.  At the next split, the unsigned left trail led just a short walk to the summit and its communication tower. 
Ahh, there’s the sign

Going right at the second split is the Rhododendron Trail (which I imagine is lovely in June) that leads to Luther Rock.  Keeping an eye on the time, we didn’t quite make it there before deciding to turn back.

Retracing our snowy footsteps made the return hike quicker, no further need for map consultations and head-scratching at road crossings.  We stuck our head in the office to say goodbye to the rangers.  What could have been a cozy but lazy day indoors was instead a walk through a snow globe where peace and quiet prevail and God abides.  I’ll choose the outdoors every time – and I’ll choose Jim too.

Next stop: The sweet little town of West Jefferson for some food and adult beverages at Boondocks Brewing & Tap Room and then cheese shopping.  What, you didn’t know that Ashe County is famous for its cheese? 

“Tell me who you walk with, and I'll tell you who you are.” ~Icelandic proverb

Friday, June 10, 2016

AT in GA: Pay Attention Or Pay the Price - Tesnatee Gap to Unicoi Gap

Appalachian Trail in GA – Tesnatee Gap to Unicoi Gap Plus a Detour – 1/30/16 – 17.7 Miles

Once in a while the universe serves up a reminder that experience is no guarantee against making mistakes.  Pay attention or pay a price.

When the opportunity for a group hiking weekend in Georgia came up I was very energized.  Other commitments dictated that I could only participate on a Saturday hike, but I made the long drive to Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega,GA on a Friday night and met some new folks.  Breakfast on Saturday morning amid much chatter built up the excitement for my first steps on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.

Most hikers were heading for the Bartram Trail, but a young woman named Laura and I agreed on the AT section between Tesnatee Gap and Unicoi Gap, about 15 miles.  I deferred to Laura’s desire to hike northbound and we chose to set up our own shuttle, a decision that later had consequences because it took quite a bit of time. 

But it was a gorgeous blue sky day, white blazes on the trees and a little white stuff on the ground.  No worries, just walking!  Laura and I quickly fell deep into conversation, comparing hiking experiences and wish lists.

Soaking in the Georgia mountains

Our first road crossing at Hogpen Gap is just a mile north of Tesnatee Gap and I looked at my watch, wondering why we had not yet reached it.  Then Laura mentioned that the white blazes had turned to blue blazes a while ago… and I felt a tingle of apprehension.  We were certainly still on a nicely developed trail, but sure enough, those blazes were blue.  I had been so engrossed in our conversation as I followed Laura that I had paid no attention. 

We reached a shelter but couldn’t pick up the trail past it.   I pulled out my NatGeo trail map and determined that we had missed a turn and gone 1.2 miles on a side trail to Whitley Gap Shelter, very nice indeed but not at all where we wanted to be.  Time to backtrack the 1.2 miles (meaning we’ve added 2.4 miles to the day). 

We got to see that lovely view again.

Sure enough, we had missed a huge sign and left turn.  In fact, the road crossing at Hogpen Gap was visible from the turn.  Adding up the shuttle setup and the detour time, it was now after 12:30 p.m. and we had about 14 miles to go to our original destination of Unicoi Gap (where my car was parked).  Several options:  hike the mile back to Laura’s truck and call it a day, hike back to Laura’s truck and drive it to an in-between location to shorten the hike, or go for it and hike on to Unicoi Gap.

Hikers with goals are determined and borderline stubborn.  We both agreed that we wanted to continue with our original plan.  That meant moving at an accelerated pace, not much stopping, and likely ending after dark.  I admit to spending most of the hike silently berating myself for not keeping up with trail blazes even though we started off the hike with Laura in the lead.  How many times have I instructed people in camping and backpacking courses that everyone is responsible for navigation and safety, not just one person?  Every person should carry a map and every person should check course periodically. 

Repeat : pay attention or pay the price.  Fortunately, Laura and I were in sync with our pace and our goal and the weather was great.  (If the weather had been threatening, we would have abandoned the hike.)  So off we went on winged boots, with little time for photos.  The terrain wasn’t difficult and there were no hard climbs. 

A little trail magic

The trail wove on and off old logging roads like this one with its collapsing rock wall

At Low Gap Shelter we stopped to eat a bite, filter some water, look at the map again and calculate the time.  Oh, yeah, we will definitely be walking in the dark. 

And yes, it was chill when we stood still

Afternoon sun

We hustled down Blue Mountain, the sun dropping faster than we were, and I was a few minutes ahead of Laura when I switched on my headlamp – which did not work.  Another lesson for the day.  At 6:45p.m. we terminated at Unicoi Gap and hugged my car, but the day wasn’t over.  We returned to Laura’s truck at Tesnatee Gap, waved goodbye, and then I set my GPS for home.  Four hours of exasperation, second-guessing and finally acceptance as I drove.  Pay attention. 

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” ~Steven Wright

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Starting the New Year Right: Waterfall Hikes

Greenville SC & Waterfall Hikes – 1/2/16 & 1/3/16 – 5 Miles

New Year’s Day is one of my favorite holidays.  I spread out my calendars, some hiking guidebooks and outdoor challenge lists, and look briefly back at the past and then eagerly forward to the possibilities ahead.  What did I do last year?  What did I miss?  Where do I want to go this year?  I don’t spend time regretting unrealized resolutions – after all, I had many opportunities that were never on a list.  Instead, I feel energized at the wide open yet-to-be.

So an early start, no waiting! Jim and I practiced our nearly-perfected overnight getaway strategy and headed for Greenville, SC, a town we have managed to miss as its popularity has recently exploded among the hip and happening. We wandered around the bustling downtown, checked out Pedal Chic, a women's bicycle shop, and ate a very healthy lunch at Green Lettuce Restaurant.

We road our hipster bikes out and back on the greenway Swamp Rabbit Trail from Swamp Rabbit Green to Hincapie Path.

Every town is better when a river runs through it
Falls Park on the Reedy

We raised a glass at Upstate Craft Brewpub, which opened earlier the same week. The young'uns sitting at our table were impressed that we have been married longer than they have been living.  We enjoyed a late supper of too much Belgian food and beer at The Trappe Door.  I kind of hated myself as I face-planted at the hotel, hoping I would be able to get up for an early start on our waterfall hunting day.

Working on the Carolina Mountain Club’s “Waterfalls 100 Challenge” has taken Jim and me down some very picturesque and remote country roads.  Today we explored three of South Carolina’s gems.  This website is my go-to resource for directions and maps to SC waterfalls.  Also, this website is excellent for hike descriptions and photos

Station Cove Falls is in Oconee State Park.  The 1.25-mile round trip easy hike leads to this 60-foot stepped waterfall that we had to ourselves.  We started our walk from a small parking pull-off but there is also access from the state park headquarters to make a longer hike.

This seems to be happening a lot lately: dog escorts on the trail.  This beautiful girl was the size of a small bear.  She knew the path well.

Our second waterfall was Lee Falls on Tamassee Creek, also in Oconee County. Descriptions of locating the trailhead and the 3-mile round trip hike itself made me cautious about going alone, thus I had waited for Jim to join me.  “Although once voted Oconee County’s most scenic waterfall, this 75-foot high falls has no official trail, but hikers have been making the difficult, 1.5-hour trip here for 170 years, surely making it easier to follow over time.” 

Well, there is a nice discernible trail through four long grassy fields

But numerous creek crossings were challenging.  Some were rock hops but others required creative solutions or wading. 

If you can look up from your feet for a moment, you might see something interesting.  A spring?  A root cellar?  Now a home for critters?

For the last half-mile the trail turns gnarly, climbing steeply and less discernibly over large boulders and fallen trees.  Are you sure this is still the trail?  Keep listening for the waterfall.  At last we were rewarded.

We passed at least a half dozen people as we backtracked from the waterfall, including a dad with his young son, and now I would feel very comfortable returning alone or leading others on this hike.  But don’t be complacent because it’s a short distance.  It would be all too easy to turn an ankle in that last stretch going up or down, and a rescue would not be quick. (The Waterfalls Hiker gives a great hike report of this destination, including his wrong turn.)

The third waterfall was on our drive back to NC, Twin Falls on Reedy Cove Creek in Pickens County.  The short .5-mile round trip doesn’t really qualify as a hike, but the waterfall certainly qualifies as a worthy visit.  (How often have people asked me, “Is the walk to the waterfall worth it?”  The answer is always “yes!”)  There is a large wooden platform built over what obviously used to be a rough trail, and it could be tempting to hop over the railing to get closer to the falls, but resist it.  The viewing station is in full view and safety concerns are what prompted its installation. 

Three waterfalls in one day – a great start to 2016!

"Life is like a waterfall; it is always moving and there is always an uneven flow to it." ~Unknown