Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Linville Gorge: Pine Gap Trail and Bynum Bluff Trail In the Wintertime

Linville Gorge: Pine Gap Trail and Bynum Bluff Trail – 1/19/19 – 3 miles

Linville Gorge:  Grand Canyon of the East, rugged wilderness, wild forest.  On paper, a straightforward looking canyon cut by the Linville River, accessible by trails from both sides.  On paper, bridges that cross the river make a rim-to-rim hike a day’s adventure. Don't be seduced by a map - do some thorough research before you tackle it.

Danny Bernstein’s succinct description from Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains might make a hiker pause: “The Linville River starts at Grandfather Mountain and flows through high valleys into Linville Gorge. Here, the river snakes for 12 miles, slashing through the canyon and ending in Lake James …The gorge is 2,000 feet deep in places and is so steep and inaccessible that the forest within it has never been logged. The Wilderness Area itself, encompassing more than 11,000 acres of protected land, is a solitary world filled with the roar of the river.” 

On every hike in Linville Gorge I’ve learned lessons, most times painful ones. From getting lost in the fog to heat exhaustion (never alone, always with other hikers), time and again we have overestimated human abilities and underestimated the ruggedness of the Gorge. A reliable 2 mile per hour pace for me anywhere else is not possible here. A 10-mile day is going to take all day and you’re going to feel it. Navigation skills are required and still you may question your location because the pace you are used to doesn’t apply.

An invitation to visit Cathy in her mountain hideaway near Linville Gorge sounded just fine. I was very much looking forward to a short hike on some new trails to help me gain confidence. Cathy, her son Patrick, her new four-legged Plott hound, Ellie, and another hiking friend had hiked in an enchanted dusting of snow in the Gorge earlier in the day. Over dinner they relayed a tale of Ellie catching a scent and tearing off into the thick forest. For an anxious half-hour they searched and called for her until she suddenly reappeared.  Hmmm…let’s try going into the Gorge again tomorrow with Ellie, keeping her on a leash.  I wonder how that’s going to work…

Morning was crisp and clear, blue skies and a brisk wind served up with a leisurely breakfast by Patrick, the resident chef: venison sausage, eggs, grits and toast. Yes, I’d love a second cup of coffee!

We drove along gravelly winter-worn Kiestler Highway on the western rim of the Gorge. Our hike plan was a loop: Pine Bluff Trail down to the river, then a short stretch on Linville River Trail to Bynum Bluff Trail, back up to Kiestler and a road walk back to the car – 3 miles. (Note: Pine Bluff Trail is #231 on the Forest Service map of Linville Gorge Wilderness and the Linville River Trail is also #231...)

Traces of snow were lingering on in the shadows (which was just about everywhere). Everything else was slippery wet. Ellie wore a red harness on a leash, but that lasted about ten minutes, as it wasn’t at all practical to hold onto the leash of an enthusiastic dog on slick rocks and steep terrain. We give credit to Ellie as she stayed with us. We attempted to keep her between the first and last person and the red harness was easy to see. Pine Bluff Trail is surprisingly level and benign for short stretches, but don’t get complacent, especially in icy conditions.

We slid down this on our behinds

At a four-way intersection, Patrick led us left to drop down to the river’s edge. A breathtaking scene: enormous boulders, thundering water flow, wild and deserted (though surely it’s crowded in summertime, multiple campsites and fire rings, a great swimming hole – I don’t think I would like camping here with a crowd.)

Ellie likes the water so Cathy kept her on leash

We couldn’t walk too far downriver because of the high water level and it was too cold to sit down on anything, so after the photo ops we retraced our steps up to the 4-way intersection.

At that point Cathy suggested extending the hike, but I stood my ground to hike up Bynum Bluff Trail and road walk back to the car as planned – I was determined to complete a Linville Gorge hike without regrets.  I knew they couldn’t resist going further into the Gorge. I offered to drive to meet them at another trailhead, so they opted to continue on the River Trail and back up to Kiestler Highway via the Babel Tower Trail. Caution:  if I can’t drive on the rough road, they’d have to walk the road back to me.

We parted ways at 12:30 p.m., me alone to hike up Bynum Bluff, Cathy and Patrick and Ellie to Babel Tower. They thought they would be finished by 2:00 p.m.

Did I mention that none of us had a map so all distances and time frames were estimates? Apparently we have learned nothing from Gilligan and the others.

Bynum Bluff was an excellent trail, a brief steep ascent and then a long gentle ridge walk with many viewpoints towards the Gorge, Hawksbill and Table Rock clearly visible most of the way.

Hawksbill and Table Rock

Hawksbill and the Linville River

I reveled in the solitary walk in the woods, the chill temperature, noisy leaf litter, bare trees. Because the conditions were so good, I felt a teeny bit of regret at not going along with my friends – BUT I was happy and didn’t want to become unhappy.

Taking my sweet time, I returned to the car around 1:30 p.m. and drove towards our rendezvous trailhead, but the washed-out gravel road was too rough and rutted to safely continue.  I pulled over to wait, knowing that it would add about a mile of road walk for them. I was delighted to find cell coverage, so I ate my lunch, checked email and FB, edited photos.

Cathy and Patrick did not return by 2:00, or by 2:30, or by 2:45.  At 3:00 I began walking to meet them, and they came around the corner after just a couple of minutes.  Turns out the route they hiked was longer than they had estimated.  What a surprise! But they were happy with their choice as well.

Only three miles for me, but a win all the same.  Thanks, Linville Gorge! Back to Cathy’s place for another great Patrick-inspired meal, an adult beverage and a campfire.

“In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.” ~Ansel Adams

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