Saturday, November 18, 2023

Paris Mountain State Park: New Year's Day 2023

Paris Mountain State Park: New Year’s Day Hike - 1/1/23 – 8.5 Miles

“First Day Hikes” at state parks on New Year’s Day are a tradition that has taken hold across the U.S.  January 1 can be a day of resolutions, reflections, regrets and/or resets, and for me it’s another good reason to get out in nature. If you don’t know where to go or who to go with, check the website of any state park for First Day guided hikes. Grab your coat and a water bottle and go on a hike (and maybe jump in the lake too)!

Hiking on New Year’s Day isn’t confined to groups, guides and state parks, of course. The important thing is getting outside. This year Jim and I crossed the border into South Carolina to visit new-to-us Paris Mountain State Park. [Note: if you’re going, remember to bring your wallet, especially if you’re used to NC’s free state parks. SC’s parks charge admission fees.]

Paris Mountain SP was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s as part of the New Deal Program by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and several buildings are still in use. There are several lakes and a campsite area to enjoy. Read more here about the park’s history, education programs, and tours and look here for a map of trails in the park.

A big ol’ shout-out to SC’s amazingly informative and user-friendly state parks websites. NC should take lessons! Or maybe that’s what an admission fee helps pay for…

On my GAIA GPS app, I worked out a loop hike with options for shortening or lengthening the route as time permitted. We skipped the Visitor Center (note to check it out on our next visit) and went straight to the Sulphur Springs Trail parking area.

The morning was damp with a wispy fog drifting through the dense forest. The white rectangle blaze looked familiar (but the Appalachian Trail doesn’t pass through SC). Sulphur Springs Trail crosses Mountain Creek several times on footbridges.

Upstream is the pump house and dam at Mountain Lake – more than 125 years old

Fog hanging heavy over the lake, making an eerily beautiful reflection

Past the lake, we started climbing, crossing Mountain Creek a few more times. No more bridges. What is the criteria for a bridge versus no bridge? Seems like the further away from the parking lot, the more likely a hiker is to encounter unbridged crossings.

Trail steps alongside an unnamed water slide on Mountain Creek

At about 1.75 miles, we turned left from Sulphur Springs Trail onto Firetower Trail and hiked about .3 miles out to the site of a former fire tower (of course).  We saw remnants of a residence, a partial chimney and a bit of stone foundation. 

Beyond this were ground level stone slabs, all that remains of the tower. This is the high point of the park, but no views other than the backyards of homes very close through the trees.

An unmaintained but obvious trail closely paralleled Firetower Trail, and we followed it to where it intersected Kanuga Trail. 

We followed Kanuga Trail to North Lake Trail. Do we have enough time to walk around the outer edge of the lake? Glad we did! We saw primitive campsites scattered amongst the trees. The light and leaves were lovely.

Leaves settled on the bottom of the still lake

Continuing in our loop from North Lake Trail, you know I had to hike a trail named Pipsissewa,
 one of my favorite flower names!

Another decision point at the intersection of Brissy Ridge Trail: right or left? It’s a loop trail, so either way is about the same distance, so we opted left to get onto the hiker-only portion. This section of Brissy Ridge was 1.5 miles, a steep downhill and then a bigger climb back up.

For the whole route, the only flat parts were on Firetower Trail and around North Lake – otherwise, ups and downs – not a “walk in the park.”

At the Brissy Ridge parking area, it took a couple of minutes to determine where to pick up the Sulphur Springs Trail to complete our big loop. Once we got oriented, Sulphur Springs Trail crossed the park road and stayed within sight/sound of it on its steep downhill trend back to our car.

For those out there like me who are better with pictures than with words, a screenshot of my GAIA track may be helpful. We started in the bottom right-hand corner and hiked clockwise, 8.5 miles and 1,338 miles of ascent. Grateful for another beautiful “first day” in the woods!

“In the new year, never forget to thank
 your past years because they enabled you
 to reach today!”
 ~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Monday, November 13, 2023

Hanging Rock State Park: Moore's Knob, Tory's Den & Tory's Waterfall

Hanging Rock State Park: Moore’s Knob, Tory’s Den & Tory’s Waterfall
11/26/22 – 10.4 Miles

Our first grandchild’s first Thanksgiving was a celebration of traditions, dinnertime between naps, and gratitude beyond measure for a new generation. A solo hike on the following Saturday afforded me quiet time for introspection on how life is changing. 

Hanging Rock State Park is in the Sauratown Mountains, named for the Saura Indians, early inhabitants of the region. The park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) between 1935 and 1942, including a dam to create Park Lake, a stone bath house, trails, roads and a steel fire tower that was, unfortunately, later destroyed by fire. Soon it was replaced by a stone fire tower. Seems that Mother Nature did not care for this either, as the stone tower was in use for only a few years before it suffered hurricane damage that required its decommissioning. It was converted to the observation tower that stands today.

A section of my route today is Hike #16 of Great Day Hikes of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail. I hiked this section going west to east back in March 2010. That day was not much fun in a drenching rain, foggy at the summit and no views from the lookout tower. 

On this chilly, still, intensely blue sky morning I arrived at the Hanging Rock Lake parking lot, apparently the first person up and ready to hike. 

As you can see, signage here is detailed and comprehensive to the point that intersection signs are like pages from a book, including directional arrows and mileages, blaze colors and shapes – and I’m happy to see this. I’ve been in too many local and state parks with tangles of intersecting trails, inadequate signage, and confused hikers.

But first of all, you need to know where you want to go. I was looking for the Moore’s Wall Loop Trail, the red circle blaze that just happens to run concurrently with the MST white circle blaze and the Lake Trail white hexagon blaze.

Passing along the edge of Park Lake

On a boardwalk through the woods

At the campground, I followed the instructions to stay on the Moore’s Wall Loop Trail 

I thought I smelled smoke! There were just a few tents and campers in the campground, smart people who watched the weather forecast and decided it was a great opportunity to spend a night outside. Wish I’d thought of it.

This is not an MST white circle blaze, just pretty lichen on a rock in the path

The trail rises along a series of stone steps. I knew I was going to climb A LOT OF THEM.  Two hikers jauntily descending told me they counted 700 so far. My pace was steady but unhurried as I warmed up, still on fresh legs so the steps didn’t hurt (yet), and I was glad of the effort required. 

Did I mention that this was my beginning training for hiking the Centennial Trail in South Dakota in June 2023?

Crunchy dry fall leaves blanketed the ground. They were not yet flattened or pulverized by walkers, making it hard to discern the terrain – are they covering up a dip in the trail or a protruding rock? 

What’s this?

Like the sign says, Balanced Rock

Moore’s Knob Observation Tower

I had the tower to myself (seriously, where IS everybody?) Each side features photographs identifying the mountain peaks and distances. 

View east: the eastern side of Hanging Rock State Park

View west: Sauratown Mountains and Pilot Mountain – the photo doesn’t show it,
but I could see Grandfather Mountain 88 miles away!

View south (no photo): I couldn’t make out Charlotte, but I did see the tall buildings of downtown Winston-Salem

Peaceful rare air, suspended in time, looking at the same view of natural features that indigenous peoples would have used for millenia as waypoints for navigation (minus the buildings, of course).

I left the tower behind and continued the loop counterclockwise along the ridge walk of Moore’s Wall, the red circle blazes fewer and farther between. 

Interesting rock formations revealed by the erosion of soil – would you stick your head
 in here to see what’s inside?

After a steep descent, I reached an intersection where a left turn continues on Moore’s Wall Loop Trail back to the lake parking lot. A right turn is the beginning of Tory’s Den Trail (blue dot blaze) and continuing on MST (white dot blaze). Tory’s Den, here I come!

This trail section started out as a pleasant walk, then a little bit of up, then a long gradual descent that I suspected would be my nemesis on the return.

Tory’s Den Trail intersects Ruben Mountain Trail twice on the left, so take note – a wrong turn will take you 3 miles around Ruben Mountain Trail with no other intersections. This is a horse trail, too, so watch out for horse poop under those leaves!

The trail grade levels out to beautiful open forest, very little undergrowth, ankle-deep leaves rustling under my feet, gray branches against the blue sky, a few scampering squirrels: Can you hear me humming, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day!”

On my right, Moore’s Wall rises straight and tall and I strained to see the observation platform through the bare branches – found it! Would be impossible to see when the trees are leafed out.

It’s about 2.5 miles from the beginning of Tory’s Den Trail to the crossing at Charlie Young Road, then a quarter mile of un-scenic trail following a power line cut (yuck, efficient but dull). At the parking area for Tory’s Den & Falls I felt accomplished and ready for a short walk…but wait a minute…more stairs! Lots more stairs!

Tory’s Den is a cave where Loyalists hid during the Revolutionary War until Patriots found them and…well, ask Google. The cave is worth visiting just as an awesome natural feature. Had to take my own photos because, you know, solitude.

Some more steps to Tory’s Waterfall (nothin’ for free here at Hanging Rock SP). The flow wasn’t spectacular, but after the first couple of cascades the water tumbles sort of sideways in pretty little cascades along the rock wall – mesmerizing whispery sounds. I ate lunch there in pure joy at being outside.

Aahhhh…where’s my car? About 4.4 miles back at the lake parking area. Retraced my steps, the gradual ascent to the intersection with Ruben Mountain Trail, feeling a little thigh fatigue. Next, the serious uphill that I expected – the only part of my hike today that required concentration and pep talking, a couple of pauses to catch my breath. I rejoined the Moore’s Wall Loop Trail and its gentle descent for the last mile or so to the lake.

My route mileage was about 10.4 miles, but you can park at the Tory’s Den parking lot and hike a shorter out-and-back route to Tory’s Den, Tory’s Waterfall and Moore’s Knob Observation Tower, about 8 miles round trip.

The drive home to Charlotte wasn’t the usual buzz kill, less traffic because of the holiday. I relished a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for my self-care in prioritizing this hike today. Home before 5pm, I joined Jim on our back porch for happy hour and Thanksgiving leftovers. Gratitude.

“It is not joy that makes us grateful;
 it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”
 ~David Steindl-Rast

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Waterfall 100 Challenge: Big Falls & High Falls On Thompson River

Waterfall 100 Challenge: Big Falls & High Falls On Thompson River
9/29/22 – 8.3 Miles

Today’s WC100 adventures were in a familiar neck of the woods (pun intended). On the eastern side of NC 281 passing through Nantahala National Forest, dozens of creeks make their way through watersheds to join the big rivers, including Whitewater, Horsepasture and Thompson Rivers.

Headed south on US 281 from its intersection with US 64 west of Lake Toxaway, Jim and I drove to Brewer Road. Referencing information from Kevin Adams’ book North Carolina Waterfalls (3rd Ed.), we parked on the side of Brewer Road and looked for our trailhead at an old gated logging road. I used my GAIA app to record our hike. [The GAIA topo map has this trail marked; the National Geographic map does not.]

At least 8 waterfalls are accessible from the route we hiked. Our must-see goals were Big Falls at the far end and High Falls on a side forest road near the beginning. In between we passed spur trails to Reid Branch Falls, Simon Falls, Rich Falls, Standing Rock Falls, and Unmentionable Falls.

On an out-and-back hike, it’s tempting to follow every side trail to waterfalls on the way to the far end of the route, but here is some advice: go all the way to the furthest point of interest first and then work your way back looking for the side trails. It is much easier to manage your time and you won’t be caught at twilight still miles from your car.

The old forest road was littered with occasional blowdowns, to be expected, otherwise easy to follow. About a mile along the gradual descent we reached the right turn to High Falls – we’ll come back to that. We stayed left and continued downhill, soon reaching a crossing of the Thompson River. We took the time to remove shoes and socks and wade across.

Gentian – the only flower I noticed all day

Through the trees we glimpsed a cascade that the GAIA app labels as Unmentionable Falls. I guess with the plethora of waterfalls nearby, the waterfall namers ran out of names. Past this cascade, Thompson River curves to the right as lesser creeks join it, increasing in size as it flows down and across the NC/SC state line and into Lake Jocassee.

The next 3 miles on trail were unremarkable save for one more unmarked fork where again we stayed left, high above the river. Along the way, reminders of logging days.

We slowed our pace, relying on the GPS to find the side trail to Big Falls. The descent started out reasonably but, as we’ve experienced with remote waterfalls, it became a slippery slope and rock scramble combo where hiking poles are useless and sturdy rhododendron branches are vital.

Getting a little tricky amongst the boulders

Trusting that this set of ropes is safe

We took turns edging out on a sloped rock to get a view of some of the cascades that make up the falls. 

Tipping the camera angle up to capture the cascades

Tipping the angle down to include the nearest chute

Whoever goes down the rope must go back up, no photos, it wasn’t pretty. I breathed a sigh of relief when we got back on the main trail. We backtracked up the logging road, agreeing that we didn’t have time to investigate the smaller waterfalls along the way to High Falls. Since there was no trail signage or blazes, we relied again on the GPS to get to the correct turn, then walked about half a mile to the drop to the river’s edge.

We certainly could hear the waterfall, but it was partially obscured around a bend. Nothing to do but wade in the water around a few big boulders…and there she was, in dappled shadow, a rooster tail spurting midway down the slide.

My feet were already wet, so I might as well wade further into the pool and stand in the water that was on its way downstream to become Big Falls. Everything is connected.

"Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop,
 a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole."
 ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson