Saturday, November 30, 2019

Morrow Mountain State Park Ramble

Morrow Mountain State Park – 3/9/19 – 7.2 Miles

Recent relentless rains canceled hike plans left and right; I was getting very antsy. On an early March Saturday every square mile west of Charlotte was forecast for rain AGAIN (sorry, am I yelling?) In the land of the flat east of Charlotte, the morning will be merely cloudy. Morrow Mountain State Park?  Doesn’t generate much enthusiasm from my hiking gene. A drab day too early for spring flowers, cloudy means no views.

But I needed to get in some training/conditioning in preparation for a Smokies backpacking trip next weekend (my confidence was lacking). I could also practice using the GAIA GPS navigation app. Jim and I downloaded a topo map of the park and sketched out a route of 7 miles with a little bit of elevation gain. The map was a bit old but I could follow along with the most recent paper map. Jim gave me a brief tutorial so I could at least turn it on and locate myself. I won’t learn if I don’t practice and make mistakes.

I got up Saturday morning and just made myself do it – the summit of Morrow Mountain or bust!  At least it’s close to home.

My hike began at 8:45 a.m., chilly and damp but tolerable. The parking lot was surprisingly crowded and I learned later about a search and rescue training session being conducted at the backcountry camping site. I’m impressed at the versatility and creative use of the park.

A well-worn trail

Like many state and county parks, trails run concurrently and crisscross frequently – it’s easier to get lost here than on the Appalachian Trail despite the abundance of blazes and signs attempting to disentangle the web (I proved this near the summit). There is even one short stretch of trail where Morrow Mountain Trail, Backpack Trail and Sugarloaf Mountain Trail all share the same real estate. My route ran from the Visitor Center parking lot to the top of Morrow Mountain. I can’t name some of the connector trails, but I basically started on the Backpack Trail (aka Morrow Mountain Trail)…

(confusing sign, Sugarloaf Mountain Trail also goes to the right)

…which was a surprisingly steep climb straight up, then a sudden sharp left turn, leveling out and circling the mountain.  

The top is very broad and I wasn’t sure where the true summit is. I caught glimpses down to the rivers and lakes (Pee Dee River? Lake Tillery? Mountain Creek? Which is which?).  

Are we at the top yet?

There is evidence of fires on this trail, whether from an event in 2010 or from more recent prescribed burns, lots of charred wood and burned stumps. Holly trees are flourishing, though, and young pines are on the rise.

Descending on the opposite side of Sugarloaf Mountain, the trail heads towards the parking area for unloading horses. All the bridle trails were closed until further notice because of damage from Hurricane Florence in the fall of 2018 and recent excessive rains. I opted for the shortcut road walk and left turn back into the woods on Sugarloaf Mountain Trail again, looking for Morrow Mountain Trail. [All trails are open as of this posting on 11/30/19. Always check park websites right before your visit to learn of temporary closures.]

Ahh, Morrow Mountain Trail at last!  A more moderate grade but still a test for me after a winter of sloth. I was glad for this training, feet conditioning, mostly mental conditioning. I pushed myself, and when I felt winded self-doubt tickled at the back of my mind - “you aren’t able to do this anymore” – but as soon as the trail leveled, I regained my breath and felt perfectly fine. BUT my right knee was achy especially on downhills and that did not improve. 

A brief stretch of Morrow Mountain Trail is covered in white quartz, gleaming like patches of snow on the wet ground. Bright green moss grew in patches within the quartz patches, presenting a pristine palette that left me in awe. A dreary day in winter woods – nature knows no such thing.

Near the top of the mountain, Morrow Mountain Trail intersects Morrow Mountain Loop Trail, a .8-mile level loop circling the summit.  I followed the loop, catching another muted view of the bodies of water below.

Again trying to get oriented, I did some back-and-forth traipsing as the Loop Trail crossed the parking lot and the road. GAIA was no help, nor was the signage, and my paper map lacked detail as well. Without topo lines, I couldn’t figure out up from down.   

Once I got my bearings, I sat on a stone wall for a snack break before beginning my descent. I must have turned off the GAIA somehow so from there my data isn’t accurate, but I remember noting that I had covered exactly 4 miles at that point. (Making mistakes aka learning the technology). I turned the GAIA on and started a new track.

Retracing my steps down Morrow Mountain Trail, I crossed paths with a group of Boy Scouts and their huffing-puffing leaders hiking up to the summit. I met a couple more hikers, all going up, but otherwise my day was solitary.  You wouldn’t get that at Crowders Mountain on a Saturday.

Almost back to the parking area, I took a turn onto Laurel Trail to see what it is all about. It’s a sweet little half-mile loop that runs alongside Laurel Creek, passes behind the rental cabins. (Did you know that Morrow Mountain SP and Hanging Rock SP have cabins for rent? Don’t bring your pooch, though.) Three deer hanging out by the creek reminded me of a car camping trip at Morrow Mountain SP when our children were in grade school. Our youngest was fascinated by the small deer that came so close to our site. Whew, I blinked and those kids are all grown up.

On the Laurel Trail loop I saw a turkey vulture fly through the trees and perch on a branch – never seen one in heavy tree cover before.  Such a massive, intimidating creature sitting up in that ol’ tree, dark feathers, red head, yellow beak, made my day – well, that and the white quartz and green moss. A colorful day after all!

Finished my hike by noon and the drive home went quickly, listening to my favorite music. Don’t know which is more therapeutic, the hiking or the music – probably both together. Glad I made myself get up and go this morning.

Forgot to turn the GAIA off until I pulled into my driveway. Still learning.

“Nature never hurries. Atom by atom, little by little she achieves her work.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Jones Gap State Park Loop

Jones Gap State Park: Pinnacle Pass/John Sloan/Rim of the Gap Loop – 2/9/19 - 7.4 Miles

For someone who thinks she is “good at” geography, I do not have a firm mental map of the relationships of state parks and other public lands that touch each other at the mountainous NC/SC border. I can wave my hand in the general direction of Jones Gap State Park, but I can’t drive you there without consulting Google maps. it really just south of Dupont State Forest? And what about Holmes Educational State Forest - NC or SC? I thru-hiked the Foothills Trail from Oconee State Park to Caesars Head State Park, but the details are fuzzy. And Mountain Bridge Wilderness – what’s that all about? I must do better.

Still working on my “60 Hikes” self-challenge, my wintertime options were determined by algorithms of good weather, reasonable drive time, daylight hours, and road openings. On this day, Jones Gap State Park fit the parameters, so off I went. And of course I was surprised (again) by how easy the drive is from Charlotte.

NOTE #1: Unlike NC state parks (free), the SC state parks charge a small fee, usually cash in an envelope at the parking area (small bills, no change for your $20). Also, the mountain area state parks do not have trash receptacles, so plan to carry your sandwich wrappers and Big Gulp cups home.

NOTE #2: Trail signage is a Forrest Gump practice in Jones Gap SP. Hikers, know your trail names, numbers and blaze colors. You never know what you’re gonna see!

A bright February day, temperature in the low 40’s, a nice clockwise loop of Pinnacle Pass Trail to John Sloan Trail to Rim of the Gap Trail and back to the visitor center, looks good on paper. I’m hiking on a Saturday and expect to see lot of peeps (surprise – not a soul on my entire route. Wake up, South Carolina!)

At 10:00 a.m. I crossed the Middle Saluda River on a wide bridge and started from the 
Jones Gap Trailhead. 

A trail closure – does that affect my plan?  A quick check of my trail map says nope.

About the length of a football field, a left turn onto the Rim of the Gap Trail (#6 yellow blaze); a few minutes more, another left turn onto Pinnacle Pass Trail (#20 white blaze), and we get serious. Pinnacle Pass is steep, a bit technical, many boulders. Very dry conditions today - I can imagine what it’s like after a rain or a freeze. I’m a little (lot) nervous at the thought of an injury on a very cold solo day, making yet another pledge with myself to get a personal locator beacon.

I don’t know the name of the creek that creates this slippery slope.  This is one place to be extra super-duper careful as the trail passes close alongside.

There was a short respite as the trail goes over the shoulder of the mountain, then another very steep climb on narrow track to what I hope is the summit. A side trail to the right with a chain link handrail took me to a rock outcropping and a firstclass view to the rock cliffs on the far side of the gap and beyond.

Near the center of the ridgeline in the photo is a small white horizontal line that is Pretty Place Chapel and YMCA Camp Greenville. I once attended a lovely wedding of two hiker friends there.

I stopped for lunch at an innocuous spot along the ridgeline trail, just me and my cheese and crackers in the stillness of the day. 

When you’re sitting near the ground you see things in a different way

White blazes were abundant on Pinnacle Pass Trail, never out of sight. I was the only sound, boots kicking up rustling leaves, no breeze.

The trail passed over a second bump (maybe that was Little Pinnacle?) and a third bump, then through a few hundred yards of mountain laurel tunnel before opening to a wide road bed.

What’s this all over the ground?

Some critter ripped big holes in the tree 20 feet high

I paused at the 6-20 Connector Trail (#22 purple blaze), interesting that the sign is chained to the tree (to prevent it from becoming a souvenir?).  I considered shortcutting over to Rim of the Gap Trail here, but continued on, fingers crossed that the next intersection would be as easy to identify (it wasn’t.)

P1 campsite, looks like bring-your-own-water

I arrived at a wide clear space that looked like a trail Junction, but no signage.  I puzzled for a moment, turned 360 degrees and saw a small pink blaze on a tree on my right.  About 40 feet past it was a tiny trail sign for the John Sloan Trail connector (#21 pink blaze).  I could not have seen it from the intersection.  

No need to be annoyed – the John Sloan Trail was a beauty, 1.2 miles of easy-peasy. At the next junction, a right turn put me on the ROTG Trail that parallels Pinnacle Pass Trail at lower elevation and I hiked 2.5 miles back to the VC to complete my loop. I was quite surprised to see the poor condition of this trail, until I considered that winter always takes its toll and maintenance cannot happen everywhere at once.

Altogether the loop took me 4.5 hours, longer than normal but factoring in the rock scrambling and valley viewpoint and lunch and plain ol’ lollygagging on a solitary day.  I will visit again in another season (not summer) to compare.

Another great report of this loop hike here.

“As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.”  ~Stephen Graham