Sunday, June 16, 2019

Carolina Thread Trail: South Fork Trail

Carolina Thread Trail: South Fork Trail – 9/24/18 – 4 Miles

Has this ever happened to you: itching for a walk in some new woods but unwilling to drive 4+ hours roundtrip from Charlotte, NC to the mountains on a Monday? Me too. Solution: the Carolina Thread Trail.

I’ve marked trails of interest on the CTT website but have been holding out until colder weather when mountain trails are inaccessible or dangerous to hike alone. But that itch wouldn’t let me wait and I pored over the list to see what would suit my time frame. South Fork Trail caught my interest, a short drive away, a two-mile one-way walk along the South Fork River connecting McAdenville and Lowell. [Note: not to be confused with South Fork Rail Trail in Lincolnton, NC.]

Parking and trailhead access are right off Exit 23 of I-85 in North Carolina, adjacent to the R.Y. McAden River Access.  There are great signs telling the history of the area and practical info like the street address. The entire trail has distance markers at .5, 1.0 and 1.5 miles and section designations for 911 location. At 2 miles, the trail ends at a residential neighborhood cul-de-sac, so no public parking, but there is an access path for the locals.

Only me at the trailhead on a Monday morning, so safety first. I had left my hike plan with Jim, but I also texted him photos of the signage along with my start time and estimated end time.

Bring your mountain bike and leave your road bike at home for this natural surface trail. It is wide as greenways typically are, with plenty of room for cyclists and walkers/runners to pass each other. The trail runs alongside the South Fork of the Catawba River on land owned by Pharr Yarns Preserve, a 94.8-acre preserve protected by Catawba Lands Conservancy (a partner with CTT).

I was on the lookout for snakes (none). On most hikes I just tolerate spiderwebs because I use trekking poles, but for the flat walk today I was empty handed. After running into a H-U-G-E web (do they seem bigger near a river?) I carried a branch in front of me to ward off the big creepy-crawlies, until I got tired of the vigilance and surrendered to the silky spiderweb facials.

The trail immediately passes underneath I-85, giant pylons painted with Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) and Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) logos. The water was high and muddy from recent rains and the far-reaching remnants of Hurricane Florence.

My walk began with noise from the highway and planes at nearby Charlotte-Douglas airport, but quickly all that faded away to sounds of crickets, cicadas, birds and flowing water. What I expected to be a pleasant but simple walk turned into an extraordinary experience, just by looking closely at what was right in front of me.  I took over 100 photos today!

Water was nearly always in sight through a screen of trees. Whenever I saw a side trail, I followed it to the river’s edge. At one short access I saw what appeared to be a very old “trail tree” with a 90-degree elbow.

At about one mile is Cable Point, a viewpoint of the river dedicated to a former Catawba Lands Conservancy Executive Director, Dave Cable, honoring his years of service. Foundation remains of buildings and stone pillars of a bridge that once crossed the river are reminders of Gaston County history.

From the website: This is a historic trail that was originally used by the Native Americans and then utilized by settlers for textile mills. There were two mills in the woods along the trail. One was the Ferguson Mill and the other one was nicknamed Pinhook. Opened in August 1852, the Pinhook Mill was the second mill to operate along the South Fork River. According to Gaston County historian Robert Ragan, the mill received its name because mill workers would use bent textile pins to fish for lunch outside the building’s windows. During the Civil War, a small detachment of Union soldiers was sent to burn down Pinhook Mill, which was producing cloth for the Confederacy. Upon hearing the soldiers coming, mill superintendent William Sahms ran out to meet the Union troop, only to find them led by his Pennsylvanian childhood neighbor. Sahms convinced the soldiers to spare the mill and the soldiers burnt the bridge instead. The stone pillars of the bridge are still in the river.”

The river was split in several places by small islands and rock outcroppings. In low water (not today) easy wading could access these nice little spots to feel like you are “in the river.” From the side paths that I saw, I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this but…disclaimer: please use caution when wading in any water!

Shortly after the 1.5-mile mark is a very small beach where someone has placed a simple wooden bench to sit and contemplate the water and time and life’s questions - or to eat lunch - or both. This is a natural turnaround point.

My first thought: a chiminea?

I walked the remaining half-mile to the neighborhood access point, a little surprised I didn’t encounter any residents out enjoying this trail at the end of their street, or at least dog walking.

On the return hike, I was no longer concentrating on the water and turned my attention to plant life. I noticed several huge silvery leaves scattered on the ground, looked up to see where they came from: a lovely stand of Fraser magnolias. On the tall mature trees and even on the short saplings, they were largest Fraser magnolia leaves I’ve ever seen.

Very late fading summer flowers, some in-your-face and others easy to miss:

White wood aster

Horse nettle

Hearts a-burstin’


Does anybody know this one?

Orange jewelweed aka spotted touch-me-not


Mushrooms, grapevines and walnuts, oh my!

Who would have thought there was so much beauty on a little strip of riverbank accessed underneath power lines and a highway overpass?  Who do you know who would enjoy this little walk in the woods? South Fork Trail is a four-season trail, easily accessible in any weather or temperature, and something new can be discovered every day of the year.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” ~Confucius

Monday, June 10, 2019

Bartram Trail: Appletree to Winding Stair

Bartram Trail: Appletree Group Camp to Winding Stair Access – 9/1/18 - 13.2 Miles

Still stinging from my Benton MacKaye Trail experience back in June, I turned my attention to the Bartram Trail, a 60-mile trail through Northern Georgia and western North Carolina.  I've already hiked the last five miles from Highway 19 to the terminus at Cheoah Bald where it intersects with the AT. Nothing like starting at the end! As part of this Labor Day weekend, I planned to check out the section that starts at Appletree Campground and tags up at Highway 19 (also known as Winding Stairs Road access).

I’m using the detailed trail guide for the NC section produced by the Bartram Trail Society. It’s a spiral-bound booklet with map excerpts and a painstakingly detailed narrative of features nearly every tenth of a mile. I am not great at narrative interpretation so I knew I had to be diligent in case there are little or no markings, and I did get used to referring to it during the hike. A separate topo map (also by the BT Society) covers the entire NC section, scale 1:38,000.

[Note: the trail guide includes notes such as, at XX mileage point “pass by interesting old dead tree trunks covered with moss.” Love it!]

Our hike/bike formula would apply very well to today’s hike plan, but I had no idea what trail conditions might be on this 12+ mile section and questionable bailout points. Jim’s research on biking routes in the area was fuzzy too (is such-and-such a road paved or gravel?) He agreed to hike with me and I found a shuttle driver through the Nantahala Outdoor Center. [Her name is Villa, she’s awesome, contact the NOC if you want to use her services.] We met her early on Saturday morning, after she walked her dog, of course. 

Villa was right on time and a treasure trove of information about our hike and the bike ride Jim was contemplating for Sunday. She showed us where the trail comes out onto Wayah Road at the NOC rafting put-in on the Nantahala River. [In fact, Villa worked for the NOC for many years, was an avid paddler, hiker, mountain biker, did her share of road biking. Her favorite hobby is photography. Shuttle drivers are some of the most interesting people!] Farther along the drive to Appletree Campground, Villa waved in the general direction where Piercy Creek Trail exits at the river and Wayah Road, the one possible bailout option from the Bartram (you have to cross the river to get to the road). Foliage was so thick I couldn’t spot the trailhead. Pretty sure we don't want to do that.

The gray, dreary early morning gave way to blue sky by the time Villa dropped us at Appletree. Off to a promising start with good blazes, yellow metal rectangles nailed onto trees. Some blazes throughout the day were painted but most were the metal rectangles. What could be the difference?

In the first half-mile the trail passes through Appletree’s group camp area, buzzing with families on the holiday weekend.  Appletree is an excellent base camp or a Bartram thru-hike stop. For the next couple of miles we stayed level with the Nantahala River, but views are obscured by late summer dense foliage.  At about three miles the trail makes a sharp elbow left turn away from river (actually reversing direction) and begins a moderately steep climb up out of the gorge. Jim led the way, the thick spiderwebs sticking to his maroon colored shirt like silver threads.

After a mile the trail levels out again, moving on and off old roadbeds. There are plenty of suitable spots to pop up a tent if you don’t like the Appletree Campground option. We passed a couple of trails on the left coming up from the campground. There was a moment of head-scratching at a meadow of shoulder-high grass but we found our way to where the trail re-entered the woods. Over the course of the day we met a half dozen creek crossings, the first three bridged and the rest quick rock hops.  The trail guide says there are deep winter “panoramic vistas” when the foliage is gone, but today we stayed in a long green tunnel. Lots of fun stuff to look at up close, though.

Trail conditions were excellent, well defined tread, not rocky, long stretches of pine needle beds. Blazes were abundant and there was signage at every intersection. I could have easily done this on my own.

Great Lobelia


We stopped for lunch at the Piercy Creek trailhead which Villa had mentioned as a bailout option. The trail looked seldom used. This sign posted at the intersection seems open to interpretation: does Appletree mean the campground entrance where we started or the Appletree Trail from the Group Camp meadow? Do these mileages jive with my trail guide (published spring 2017) or will our hike be longer than we anticipated? I'm sure it will all make sense when we're sitting at the bar tonight.

Next challenge, the second part of the climb up Rattlesnake Mountain; however, the trail doesn’t cross the summit. It goes over a shoulder and then begins a long gradual descent, winding gently in and out of hardwood coves.

Pale yellow jewelweed covering the slopes

Jewelweed and blowdowns

Water surge tank

Finally, a nice view! Hmmm…why does the sign indicate the trail in only one direction?

But wait, we’re not done with that long gradual descent. We’ve got 1.7 miles to go on a steep gravel service road.  And as sometimes happens when a trail meets civilization, the road is in sight and yet somehow we missed a well-marked turn near the Duke Energy substation and had to backtrack.

We crossed Wayah Road and followed the yellow blazes. Dozens of paddlers were loading into rafts to float the Nanty down to the NOC. [Many years ago Jim and I took a couple of our kids on the same rafting trip.  The water was freezing cold. As I recall, Jim fell out of the raft, and the petite female guide grabbed him by the shoulders of his PFD, flipped him around and hauled him back into the raft quicker than you could say “what just happened?”  Good times.]

The Bartram Trail follows the Riverwalk, a lovely paved greenway path, for 1.5 miles to our car at Winding Stair Access - a mellow ending to a great hike. Done before 2:30 p.m., ready for a shower, some food and a few beers at The Warehouse at Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City.  Yep.

"Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat." ~Laura Ingalls Wilder