Monday, August 29, 2016

Virginia's Best: Cascades & Barney's Wall

Cascades & Barney’s Wall – 5/29/16 – 8 miles

Hiking (me) and biking (Jim) go together like peas and carrots.  Jim signed up for the Mountains of Misery charity bike ride in Newport, VA, just up the road from Cascades National Recreation Trail in Jefferson National Forest.  While I have hiked to the Cascades waterfall several times (most recently with our daughter Laura in 2014) this was a great opportunity to go further to check out the Upper Cascades and Barney’s Wall. 

The best part:  Home base in our favorite place on earth, Blacksburg, VA.  We spent Friday roaming around the Virginia Tech campus…

… and sampling beers at Rising Silo, an indoor-outdoor brewery.

Saturday morning at crack-of-dawn-thirty I dropped Jim off at the ride start and headed to the Cascades in nearby Pembroke.  Only two cars in the huge parking lot at 7:00 a.m. (It was slam full when I left.)  The trail starts at the information board beside the bathroom building. 

Within 5 minutes’ walk it splits into an upper and lower route on either side of Little Stony Creek.  The best choice is crossing the footbridge to the trail on the lower side to get up close and personal with the creek.  Returning via the upper trail gives a different perspective of the creek and makes a nice loop.

In recent years I have hiked many trails, and the Cascades hike stands out as one of the best of the best.  Why?  It’s a gentle uphill grade, easy to follow, alongside the shaded mountain creek that lives up to the stony part of its name yet is anything but little.  So walk with me.
After one mile the trail crosses Little Stony Creek on another footbridge to rejoin the upper trail.  The second mile is a little steeper and a bit more challenging.  Yet it doesn’t seem difficult because I’m walking slowly, mesmerized by the soundtrack and seemingly endless flow of mini-cascades.  This isn’t a hike for exercising the body but for engaging the senses and immersion in the flow.  Zen anyone?
 A teaser trickle

The destination for most visitors:  66-foot tall Cascades Waterfall.  This early in the morning it’s just me and a single fisherman.  

I hear voices approaching, signaling that it’s time for me to move on.  The observation deck near the falls is closed, so I take the wooden stairs leading to the upper trail.  In the large open area, a left turn onto that upper trail leads back to the parking lot.  A right turn leads to the Conservancy Trail and Barney’s Wall; that’s where I am headed.  A half-mile along this fire road, an unmarked trail to the right leads a short way down to Upper Cascade Falls.  Here I meet a second early bird out enjoying the solitude (the owner of that second car in the parking lot.) 

Unlike the reveal of the lower waterfall, looking across the large pool, the first glimpse of the Upper Cascades is right at the edge of the drop.  The proximity to all that power is exhilerating. 
It’s a very rough scramble down to the bottom of the falls and I’m amazed that people haven’t forged a more solid path – and then I realize that the forest service doesn’t really provide information about it and most visitors never venture here with no signage, no clear instructions in the parking area to encourage exploration.  But what a reward for the effort:
Upper Cascade Falls

From here I retrace steps to the main Conservancy Trail.  The next mile continues the ascent through open forest.

My multi-legged friend points the way

Up to this point the signage is great, but that’s the last of it.  I walk the 1.5 miles, pass a nice campsite, and find myself on a cliff edge. 

Looking out at New River Valley towards Blacksburg, VA

Am I on Barney’s Wall?

Or am I looking at Barney’s Wall?

I begin following a trail hugging the edge and seems to be heading towards that wall of rock.  About halfway there, the trail peters out and I remember that I am alone out here.  Still, I continue stubbornly fighting my way through the rhododendron until I have to admit defeat and turn back. 

I need to get back to that rock ledge without falling off the mountain

Time to get back to Jim’s bike race.  There will be a next time for hiking the Cascades because there is more to explore further up the Conservancy Trail extending to Butt Mountain and Lookoff Rock. 

I haven’t seen anyone today other than the fisherman and the early morning hiker and the first two miles backtracking are solitary as well.  At the trail intersection leading to the lower waterfall I stay on the upper trail and see that the multitudes have awakened, had coffee and doughnuts, and are swarming along the trail in all their flip-flop glory.  And that’s as it should be.  It’s a spectacular spring Saturday and I’m delighted to see families, college students and older adults hiking up to see what Little Stony Creek has on display. 

And I’m also delighted to see that Jim is still in one piece and is enjoying the celebration and fellowship of the cycling community at the Mountain Island Lake finish line.

Gracious and generous God, thank you for giving us health and strength to enjoy the world that You have made.  Amen.

“When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows and look out upon the beautiful world, I thank God I am alive.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, August 19, 2016

Smokies 900 Round 2: Mount Cammerer Fire Tower Loop

Smokies 900 Round 2:  Mt Cammerer Loop Hike: Low Gap II/AT/Mt Cammerer/AT/Lower Mt Cammerer – 5/14/1616 – 16.7 miles

Testing, testing… how difficult will the Low Gap Trail be?  Named for the gap between Cosby Knob and Mount Cammerer, this trail feels anything but “low” as it climbs more than 2,000 feet in less than 3 miles.  During my first Smokies 900 experience of hiking all the trails in the GSMNP, there was necessarily some overlap but I planned my routes for minimal repetition of trail miles.  Low Gap’s function as a connector from Cosby Campground to many other trails, though, made it the most repeated trail of the project.  Steady and steep, Low Gap was always a tough start or a rough finish to a day.

The weather was fine early in the morning, promising clear long range views from the Mount Cammerer fire tower up at 5,000 feet.  Cathy and I packed up camp and moved our car to the hiker parking area.  Our route was a loop hike with an out-and-back spur to the lookout tower.  Which way to go around the loop?  We chose to take our punishment up front and then stroll to the finish line, so here we go counterclockwise starting up Low Gap.

An early shock:  In the first ten minutes we faced a missing bridge crossing of Cosby Creek.  Water was churning fast over and around large rocks with no flat, slow-moving place to see the creekbed.  After scouting up and down and finding no good options, I decided to risk it on a slightly underwater log while Cathy removed boots and socks and waded across barefoot. 

Back to the business of ascending to Low Gap.  Cathy motored ahead out of sight, and I was pleased to find that the ascent felt quick and moderate and not terrible, a definitive measure of my increased conditioning.  I passed two other women on the way to the gap and met their jackrabbit friend chatting with Cathy, waiting at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail.

We turned left onto the AT to continue northbound 2.1 miles to the Mount Cammerer spur trail.  The ascent continued, although less steeply.  Up here on the ridge, a blustery wind got our attention with clouds moving in and a noticeable drop in temperature, and we stopped to put on long sleeves and light gloves. Trilliums appeared in profusion along the AT.
Sweet white trillium

Painted trillium

This section of the AT undulates along the ridge line, walking the high wire of the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina.  So high up, still I felt grounded in an awareness of my “location” on the planet, walking on a topo map, as I looked down into the valleys on either side of the ridge.  As many miles as I have hiked on the AT, for me this feeling is unique to the Smokies. 

Surprise!  We met a black bear snacking on the trail.  Fortunately we saw it on a straight stretch, far enough away not to scare it (or us). We watched the bear’s nonchalant behavior for a few minutes; it looked at us a couple of times; then it melted into the trees.  Even though it clearly registered our presence, there was no aggressive behavior, no cubs.  I can’t guess whether it was male or female.  As we passed by the spot a minute later there was no evidence of the bear’s presence, no sight, no sound.  How many have we passed without knowing? [A lesson to always pay attention, look up from your feet, listen even if you’re hiking/talking with someone else.]

Mount Cammerer Trail is a .6-mile spur off of the AT passing through mountain laurel and rosebay rhododendron (not yet blooming). A tall hiker might be able to see above the scrub, but not us.  The fire tower itself sits on top of a sandstone rock outcropping jutting up toward the sky.  A tower was first constructed of native lumber and stone at this location in the late 1930’s and the current structure was built in 1995. 

Mount Cammerer Lookout Tower

Looking at Mount Cammerer Trail from the lookout tower catwalk

Half a dozen people were exploring the tower, which is fully enclosed (can’t really see out the windows), and its catwalk all the way around (unobstructed views galore). The sky was now overcast, the wind had gained strength, and it was too chilly to hang out on the catwalk.  Cathy and I ate lunch inside the tower and chatted with other hikers, some who had never been there before and some who had climbed to the tower many times over many years.

Hoping to stay ahead of the changing weather, Cathy left a tad ahead of me and we met up again back at the AT junction, where we turned left to continue northbound on our loop.  Although we had climbed all morning, the descent on this section of the AT got old fast.  In 2.3 miles we lost 2,000 feet we had gained, going down rutted steps on an otherwise rocky and rooty path.  There is one good viewpoint from atop a boulder at a hard left turn, teasing the northbounder that the end of the Smokies traverse is near. 

For us, the steep descent ended when we turned left onto Lower Mount Cammerer Trail – what a welcome change!  I may have to promote this to my favorite trail in the Great Smokies, at least at this time of year.  The brown book description lends a great visual:  “Imagine a giant cupcake plopped upside down.”  The trail wound in and out of ridges on a gentle downhill grade, lush green, smothered in trilliums. Many of the interior turns crossed little creek draws of trickling water.

We passed a lengthy stretch of flowering doghobble, the most I’ve ever seen at one time. 

We paused at Phillips Cemetery, which I remembered from my previous hike.  It is a high and lonely place with no signage, just eight gravestones, the only legible one marking the life of two-year-old G. Estes Phillips.   Read a detailed description at the blog post here. 

At one outward curve I noticed an unmarked but obvious trail bisecting Lower Mount Cammerer Trail.  Researching later, I read about the Ground Hog Ridge manway which goes steeply up to the lookout tower.  That’s two intriguing unofficial trails in two days piquing my interest.

As pleasant as the trail was, it was also 7.5 miles long.  A brief sit-down at Campsite 35 gave new life to my weary legs and tenderized feet – 3.3 miles to go.  We skipped the short-but-steep spur up to a view on Sutton Ridge but a little ways further down we were treated to a look at Gabes Mountain.  I believe I sighed out loud.  So many emotions stirred up by a green mountain and a blooming mountain laurel!
Like most Smokies trails as they approach the valleys, the last mile of Lower Mount Cammerer Trail is a near-level walk on a wide old road bed, crossing creeks on footbridges, even passing through two old traffic circles.  Stone walls trigger the imagination of former house sites with vegetable gardens, patches of crops and small pens for the family’s cow and pigs. 

When Cathy and I reached the intersection with Low Gap Trail, the memory of the morning wade across Cosby Creek made us ignore the right turn to repeat it.  Instead we kept straight, aiming towards the back end of Cosby Campground, which we could then walk through to reach the hiker parking area.  We still had to cross Cosby Creek, but lo and behold, a nice big bridge carried us over. 

We washed up, changed clothes, and began our long journey home at 4:30 p.m., relishing the feeling of a beautiful day, a varied and interesting hike, a challenge well met – and a bear!  

Read about my previous hike on the same loop to Mount Cammerer fire tower, clockwise, in 2009.

"When I saw the mountains, my weight lifted and my restless spirit calmed. I knew this is where I belong."  ~John Muir