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

No comments: