Monday, September 30, 2019

Hickory Nut Gorge: Wildcat Rock Trail

Wildcat Rock Trail to Little Bearwallow Falls – 1/5/19 – 6 miles

What’s even more exciting than hiking a trail that’s new to me? Hiking a trail that’s new to just about everybody.  North Carolina is crisscrossed with hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands and thousands of miles of trails, but the work of identifying and protecting more land is ongoing thanks to conservation groups and visionary landowners.  And new trails are painstakingly constructed so that outdoor lovers can enjoy what is preserved.

Conserving Carolina is a land trust organization doing great work in land and water conservation in parts of western NC and upstate SC (Brevard/Hendersonville/Lake Lure/Landrum). You want to look at every corner of their fantastic website to see what they’re doing and how you can be a part of this important work.  Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

On a chilly first Saturday of 2019 Jim and I hiked Wildcat Rock Trail, located west of Lake Lure in Hickory Nut Gorge. Formerly known as Little Bearwallow Falls Trail, in 2017 the path was rebuilt and improved to become Wildcat Rock Trail.

A breakdown of the 3-mile one-way trail includes Little Bearwallow Falls, Wildcat Rock and views across the Gorge, and a lovely meadow on the ridgeline of Little Bearwallow Mountain. The beauty of an out-and-back hike is turning around whenever you feel like it, checking out just the waterfall, the Wildcat Rock Overlook, or going the whole distance to the meadows.

Everything you want to know about Wildcat Rock Trail is here on Conserving Carolina’s web page, descriptions of the land’s history and the conservation process, directions to the trailhead and a trail map.  Read all of it before you go to get the best experience!

From the parking area of the Hickory Nut Gorge Trailhead on Gerton Highway, we crossed the road to the Wildcat Rock Trail kiosk. The trail passes along the edge of an apple orchard on private land (easement granted) and a footbridge took us across robust Hickory Creek.

Private property signs cheerfully remind us to be respectful of neighbors

Here we go up Little Bearwallow Mountain

Pace yourself - more than 100 carefully placed log stairs

At about the one-mile mark, Little Bearwallow Falls flowed in a white ribbon 100 feet down a broad rock face. The scene was stark, bare winter woods in deep morning shadow. Imagine it on a sunny spring afternoon in full force, green leaves and wildflowers all around. I think if you go off-trail a bit you can capture this beauty in its entirety.  Just be careful where you put your feet! There was no ice when we visited, but this area is a big draw for ice climbers (at your own risk).

Can you see me? Little Bearwallow Falls

Part of the upper cascade

Looking back at Little Bearwallow Falls from further up on the trail

The trail continues ascending for another mile, increasingly rugged and steep, many boulders and rock steps.  The thought crossed my mind – this is not going to be fun going back down – as I leaned into the mountain’s rocky face, looking out at the views only when at a full stop. No pictures! [Note: it wasn’t as bad going down as I anticipated.]

Just when you begin to think you’ve missed a sign somewhere...there it is.

Well, the overlook may be close but it’s still up (90 more rock steps). Imagining this trail in summer, I was glad for the cold air.  There was a young couple with a dog at the overlook, but they left us to a few minutes of calm and quiet.

Back at the main trail, Jim and I turned left to continue ascending (a little more gently now) to the ridgeline of Little Bearwallow Mountain. Again a sign made no mistake about where we were. Future plans will continue the trail to connect with trails at the top of Bearwallow Mountain. For now, we contented ourselves with soaking up sunshine and roaming the meadow (no cows today).

Communication towers on the summit of Bearwallow Mountain

The 3-mile return hike was indeed easier, more people approaching the waterfall, and there was still plenty of afternoon in front of us.  Feeling a little parched…I’ve heard about a cidery nearby…

“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”  ~William Wordsworth

Monday, September 16, 2019

New Year's Day at South Mountain State Park

South Mountain State Park: It’s A New Year – 1/1/19 – 3 Miles

New Year’s Day, perhaps my favorite day of the year, a blank calendar full of possibilities, and good riddance to 2018. We’ve had so much wet weather lately thwarting outdoor plans, but no rain predictions today and temps in the high 50’s – welcome to 2019!  My friend Holly joined me for a hike at one of North Carolina's finest state parks, South Mountains State Park, an easy drive from Charlotte.  High Shoals Falls is always powerful but should be particularly impressive from the recent rains.

We took the High Shoals Fall Loop clockwise to the falls.

And there she is, 80 feet of awesomeness!

We tackled the steep stairways past the falls, following Jacob Fork River upstream to cross on the bridge. I remember when there was no bridge…and everyone waded. 

After the crossing, my plan was to turn left onto Upper Falls Trail, then right onto the H.Q. Trail to circle clockwise back down to the parking area.  BUT I got a little sideways…I didn’t interpret the map correctly (a little embarrassing because I was the navigator). We turned left too soon and walked thru the Upper Falls Campsites area. Nice sites, BTW.

On the far side of the campsites we came to a wide unbridged crossing of Jacob Branch.  The look on Holly’s face said “nuh-uh” and we turned back, but then I hesitated.  Had Holly ever waded a crossing before?  Nope.  Well, today is a good day to try it!

I told her my rules of thumb for wet (and cold) creek crossings: If I’m going to a campsite with additional days of hiking, I want to keep my boots dry, so I wade in my Crocs or at least just wear socks (with a spare dry pair in my pack). If I’m hiking back to my car in a few miles where dry shoes and socks are always waiting, it’s okay to wade in my boots. Even wet, my feet won’t be cold while hiking. That’s the part that surprises people until they experience it.

Sometimes you have an unexpected crossing that you must take, but today we had a choice to “practice.” Like the good sport she is with all things, Holly tried it – and her delight was contagious!  A new challenge met for New Year’s Day.

At the next intersection I realized again that I wasn’t where I intended to be, but more map study told us to turn left onto Raven Rock Trail leading to the River Trail and back to the parking area. Along Raven Rock Trail we passed a family enjoying a group horseback ride.  We would have missed them if we had been on our intended route. 

So we hiked a little less distance than we planned, but that’s better than a little longer.  To celebrate our map reading and creek conquering skills, we stopped at Redbone Willy’s Trading Company where they specialize in unusual homemade ice cream flavors. We had Skillet Cake with chunks of pineapple upside down cake and caramel. Jeez Louise!

"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." ~Neale Donald Walsch

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” ~ Neil Gaiman