Sunday, July 28, 2019

Carolina Thread Trail: First Broad River Trail

Carolina Thread Trail:  First Broad River Trail – Shelby, NC – 11/4/18 – 4.4 Miles

I’m a big believer in exploring public spaces between “here” and “there” when I travel, and the Carolina Thread Trail makes it easy to find small but valuable gems. The Carolina Thread Trail networks through 15 counties in North and South Carolina. Homeward bound on a Sunday afternoon after an annual book club girls’ weekend in the mountains, feeling lighthearted and looking to squeeze a little more fun out of my trip, I set my GPS on the First Broad River Trail in Shelby, NC. It met my 4-mile minimum criteria for my 60th birthday hiking challenge (remember that? I often ignore it).

The website’s general description:  This section of the Carolina Thread Trail is a 2.2-mile natural surface trail which follows the First Broad River in Shelby, NC. Take in the great views from this new trail which runs under a historic wooden railroad trestle and over the First Broad River via a 120-foot-long suspension bridge. The river outlook is perfect for wildlife and bird viewing and a hand-carry boat launch conveniently located near the trailhead parking lot offers easy access for paddling.

Well, they had me at “120-foot-long suspension bridge.”

If you’re a river walker, you’ll love this straightforward and easy path. I parked at the beginning of the greenway, Twin Trestle Trailhead. You could just spread out a picnic blanket and watch the trains go by right there.

A concrete walkway crosses open space, enters the woods and passes under West Grover Street. The suspension bridge looms large across the First Broad River (natural surface trail beyond the bridge).

Awesome mileage markers with longitude and latitude

  From the bridge you can glimpse a second railroad trestle that the trail will pass under 
(aka “Twin Trestle Trailhead”)
Then the trail veered slightly away from the river to pass beneath that railroad trestle bridge, then turned back to stay with the water. I met a few families and dogs walking their humans, but past the train trestle I enjoyed solitude.

This was early November, just a little bit of fall color, but I’m guessing the trail’s best full-on display is springtime wildflowers at the river’s edge.  Still, the sunny blue-sky day was just right for a nice walk, crossing several small wooden bridges and walking beneath Highway 74 where it crosses the First Broad. (For those of you who’ve driven there, bet you didn’t know that there is another trail access point beside Ingles!)

Whoooo lives here?

The trail ends without fanfare at a dead end, I presume a property boundary.  Hopefully one day it will continue on to connect with some other greenway for the forward-thinking community of Shelby. In the meantime, the First Broad River Trail is a great place for biking, walking and enjoying the flow of water and of life.

My walk back was uneventful except for another swing along the suspension bridge, humming the 57th Street Bridge Song. 

“Slow down, you move too fast   
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones  
Looking for fun and feeling groovy”  
 ~Paul Simon~

Monday, July 22, 2019

Bottom Creek Gorge Preserve

Exploring Bottom Creek Gorge Preserve, VA – 10/28/19 – 5.6 Miles

Make outdoor exploration a part of every trip you take even (especially) if isn’t the focus. Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go – and stop in those woods for a little bit! A little internet search ahead of time will point you to some awesome local public lands that your hosts may not know about. 

Leaving our friends’ home in Roanoke, VA, pointed south towards Charlotte, Jim and I took the backroads less traveled. The yellow lines disappeared, the pavement got narrower, the homes fewer and farther between.  The trees canopied overhead, their fall colors glowing with intensity.

We were looking for Bottom Creek Gorge Preserve, at the corner where Montgomery, Floyd and Roanoke counties meet. We had a few moments of confusion about which road was which. A tad remote and very special, this place.

The Preserve encompasses about 1,650 acres running from the top of Bent Mountain down to Bottom Creek. The creek is a robust mountain stream powering down the narrow gorge that it created on its way to join the South Fork of the Roanoke River.  It is not a gentle flowing stream. Big boulders create funnels and chutes as the fast water tumbles through a stairstep series of waterfalls that are called “The Kettles.”  The creek is home to many rare aquatic species, including four native species of fish, and it contains 10 percent of all fish species in Virginia.  (Fishing is not permitted – it is a preserve, you know.  Tell that to one guy who blogged about how awesome the fishing is.)

There are about 5 miles of hiking trails, configured like a pair of eyeglasses, two loops and a trail down the middle.  Find a downloadable trail map at the bottom of this page on the Conservancy website.

Another article chockfull of information written by a Virginia Tech student.

We parked at the gravel road trailhead and began gearing up for our hike. It was pretty chilly and we anticipated muddy trails due to the recent rains. A guy drove up and got out of his car, wearing a bright orange sweatshirt and carrying only an axe. He said, “Hi,” and started walking up the trail. Jim joked about an axe murderer and no one there to hear our screams.

We quickly caught up to the man, who wore a name tag as a Nature Conservancy volunteer and introduced himself as Dave.  He was walking the trails for the first time since the two hurricanes had passed through. We agreed that we would walk one trail and he would walk another and report back about any downed trees when we met at the waterfall overlook.

The first half mile is a continuation of the gravel road. There are just three other trails in the preserve, colorful blazes, pretty darn easy to stay oriented.  The trails have names as well. Jim and I took the yellow trail (Knight Trail) down, down, down to Bottom Creek, passing a peaceful little pond along the way.

A short and obvious side trail leads to the water’s edge to see “The Kettles”.  We rock scrambled upstream a bit to get a better look. Wow.

Back on the yellow trail, a steep climb out (what goes down must go up).  The trail passed an enormous yellow poplar tree with multiple straight trunks. I am sure that the trail was purposely routed past this magnificent fellow.  It deserves a plaque!

At the intersection with the red trail (Johnston Trail) we turned left to follow it, again trending downhill.  Dave had walked the entirety of the red trail and was waiting for us at a clearing that looks out into the Gorge. Across the way, Camp Creek pours off the mountain to join Bottom Creek in a dramatic 200-foot drop called Bent Mountain Falls, the second highest waterfall in VA. Including the series of cascades above the main drop, the total run is around 350 feet. Dave explained that in the winter the upper cascades are more visible, and once he pointed them out we could discern them through the foliage.

Looking across the Gorge at Bent Mountain Falls, I was reminded of South Harper Creek Falls in the Wilson Creek area of Pisgah National Forest, NC (120 feet tall). 

South Harper Creek Falls  

We chatted with Dave about bygone residents of Bottom Creek, the hard life on steep, rocky land. He told us to look for remnants of buildings and homesteads.

Jim and I backtracked up the red trail and turned left onto the blue trail (Duval Trail), a more moderate grade. Dave trailed behind to work on small blowdowns. We investigated one structure, quite deteriorated, no roof, no chimney, presumably used for storage.

About 100 yards off the trail, Jim spotted another structure. This was a homesite, appeared to have several rooms and an intact chimney. Seeing a stone chimney standing deep in the woods is haunting, picturing a mother and daughters cooking, the family sitting in the firelight before bedtime. Is it dark at night on the mountaintop, or are the stars brighter than we’ve ever seen them?

Through the trees I caught a glimpse of Dave standing at a small cemetery, two graves, presumably residents of the homestead. One was marked by a plain slab headstone and foot stone. The other was marked by an ornate column with a worn carved inscription. Perhaps there were no children here.  Perhaps they are buried elsewhere. Perhaps descendants still visit here.

Emily Hall, wife of R.W. Hall, Feb. 7, 1855, March 17, 1931

We walked with Dave for the remainder of the hike as he described more features of the Preserve. Further into the woods beyond the homesite is a rock slab and another overlook down into the valley, but we didn’t take time to find it today. Near the summit the landscape opened into small flat pastures, no other structures to see, but he indicated where homes had been.  Out of sight beyond one meadow is a larger cemetery, but no time to explore – next time!

And what about that old Girl Scout Camp Kiwanniana? Dave had a little info. The camp stood a couple of miles down the mountain and is long gone, but there are some cabins left that are now dwellings. I think about Camp Occoneechee, the Girl Scout camp of my daughters’ youth. It is now private property, many of the buildings fallen into disrepair, yet one of the cabins is now on Airbnb!  I don’t know what to think about that.

The diversity of topographic features and the lore of human history in a five-mile loop in the middle of nowhere rural Virginia – what a great find! I am glad that the Nature Conservancy exists to preserve these places. It is visionary work and seldom appreciated.  I was so impressed with the Preserve and Dave, its devoted volunteer, that I made a donation.  Maybe you can support a Nature Conservancy in your neck of the woods.

[Note to self: on the way home we passed AmRheins Winery – next time!]

“How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.” ~John Burroughs