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

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