Monday, October 27, 2014

Lookout Towers & Waterfalls - Cherokee, NC

Mount Noble Lookout Tower+ Barnett Knob Lookout Tower + Mingo Falls + Soco Falls – 8/17/14 – 7.2 Miles

Do you always finish one book before starting to read another?  Do you eat all of one delicious food on your plate before eating the next (peas before mashed potatoes)?  I like to complete one book before the next, but sometimes I find myself with two or three going at once because (a) my turn came up for a hard-to-get item at the library; (b) a friend handed me a book and said, “Drop everything and read this NOW;” or (c) in the midst of something heavy and complicated I needed a break with some chic lit. 

You know I’m a hiking list person.  Although I enjoy one-off trips to unique areas, I appreciate lists and guidebooks that take me places that might not hit my radar, on hikes that may be too short to warrant an overnight trip but can be bundled together for a fun day in the same area.  Western NC is chock-filled with waterfalls and lookout towers that rise above the trees, most of them just a short walk from the car.  So in addition to larger hiking projects like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail or the AT in Virginia, I keep an eye on other lists to enhance a trip to the mountains (any mountains).  Two great challenges are the Lookout Tower Challenge and the Waterfall 100 administered by Carolina Mountain Club. 

The day after Jim’s big Blue Ridge Breakaway bike ride was a perfect day for this type of exploration.  I narrowed down the list to two lookout towers and two waterfalls, all easy hikes (well, except maybe the first one).  First up:  Mount Noble Lookout Tower in the CMC challenge created from Peter Barr’s book Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers.  This tower and the Barnett Knob tower (which we visit later in the day) are the only two lookouts on Cherokee Indian Reservation land today near Cherokee, NC.

Peter’s book includes exhaustive research on each tower’s history, construction, current use status (most are inactive) and details of the views.  He also gives detailed directions to trailheads and, where possible, multiple hikes to the towers.  Mount Noble Trail starts from the Oconaluftee Indian Village parking area in Cherokee.  We felt a little like trespassers on this Sunday morning when the Village was closed. 

If you’re in it just for the hiking, this trail is average.  It is well-maintained but unsigned, so take Peter’s hiking narrative with you.  It’s a steep, 2.4-mile trail weaving in and out of finger ridges until it hits a gravel access road about a quarter mile from the tower.  Keep in mind that most lookout tower locations are now home to multiple communication monstrosities.  The charm of a single tower on a mountaintop is rare.

The most exciting thing about this hike today was this big bad little garter snake on the trail. 

Jim stepped over him unnoticed, but when I came along it decided to stand its ground.  It was perhaps 18 inches long.  After a few minutes of mutual eyeballing, I realized he wasn’t giving up, so I flicked him (gently) off the trail with my hiking pole.  C’est la vie.

Mount Noble Lookout Tower.  We couldn’t access the cab, just climbed as far as possible up the stairs.

The view if you squint and look between the other junk.  Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my copied pages of Peter’s description of the view so I can’t identify the peaks.

On the return hike we got brave and took a scant trail that looked like it went straight down a ridge rather than circling around for the first half mile.  Every few yards there were trees tagged with orange flag tape.  The tags read “EBCI Survey, Do Not Disturb.”  They didn’t say “no trespassing” so we figured we were safe as long as we didn’t touch.  EBCI stands for Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

Interesting gashes in the trees where the orange tape is tied

Second act:  Mingo Falls.  We visited this waterfall probably 20 years ago.  It’s located just a few miles from Oconaluftee Indian Village, heading out of town on Big Cove Road.  The walk to the falls is measured in hundreds of yards, not miles, but involves some stair climbing to make you feel you’ve put in some effort.  A bridge crosses in front for viewing from a safe distance, although there were some who scrambled on the rocks to get closer.

Mingo Falls:  A near-vertical cascade about 150 feet tall.

On our way out a woman asked me if the walk was “worth it” to see the falls.  How do you answer such a question?  When is a walk in the woods not worth it, even if there is no waterfall?  I always say emphatically, “Yes!”

Round three:  Barnett Knob Lookout Tower.  The access road is reached via the Blue Ridge Parkway as it descends through the Qualla Boundary to its terminus at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The hike is 1.2 miles round trip on a gravel road that feels surprisingly steep, perhaps because it’s not a nice hiking trail.  This tower is still manned during days of high fire danger.

Again, the tower is surrounded by lots of other steel constructions. 

But the view is pretty nice

Finale:  Soco Falls.  Unlike Mingo Falls’ easy access, Soco Falls seems like an accident waiting to happen.  A few hundred yards off of twisty, busy U.S. 19, there are a few pull-off spaces with no visible signage.  The trail looks like it was started with good intentions down to a little viewing station, but there is also a steep scramble where somebody has rigged up ropes for handrails and an honest-to-god rope to swing down to the base of the waterfall. 

Now, I am sometimes willing to take some risks, but seldom if other people are around.  I am not a superior athlete, but I am pretty good at assessing risk.  In this case, however, I didn’t realize how precarious this system was until I was hanging on for dear life. 

The falls were so loud we had to shout to be heard and it felt glorious standing so close to all that power.  As other people began to queue up for the rope swing, we decided to leave before we were witness to a serious injury. 

An all-around great weekend where Jim and I engaged in the outdoor activities we love, both separately and together.  Moral of the story:  wherever you are headed, look over your lists, whether they are hikes or bike routes or wineries.  Variety is the spice of life!

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least - and it is commonly more than that - sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pisgah National Forest: Cat Gap Loop & John Rock

Cat Gap Loop Trail/John Rock Trail/Art Loeb Trail/Butter Gap Trail – Pisgah National Forest - 8/16/14 – 12 Miles

My husband loves to ride his bike in the mountains and during the good weather months he participates in one or two charity/challenge rides per month in different locations around western NC or VA.  He always invites me to come along to watch the start.  But…what do I do after that?  I usually politely decline and go hiking somewhere else.  Occasionally, though, the location is good for both of us.  The Blue Ridge Breakaway at Lake Junaluska was perfect.

We arrived on Friday and took a walk around the picturesque resort.  Jim checked in and got his goody bag.  We drove into nearby Waynesville for a pizza supper.  In our quest to eat well and sleep cheap, we camped at the Lake Junaluska campground.  Snoozed peacefully in our little tent. 

Saturday morning, bright and early, Jim was ready for his 100-mile ride, a portion of it on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Good luck, honey!

The hike that I ultimately chose wasn’t terribly convenient, about an hour away on the eastern side of the Parkway, but I’d had my eye on this part of Pisgah National Forest.  My route included the Cat Gap Loop hike from Danny Bernstein’s guidebook Hiking the Carolina Mountains plus some extra miles.  Picture a bowtie around a man’s neck, a circle with a figure 8 in the front center.   The hike included some doubling over but with a purpose.  Carolina Mountain Club administers a hiking challenge called the Pisgah 400 – yes, similar to the Smokies 900.  I’ve never focused on the P400 but one day I may take it on, so it’s prudent to pay attention to the trail map and cover any little bits and pieces - and there are many because nothing in Pisgah NF goes in a straight line.

Starting on the Cat Gap Loop Trail from the Pisgah Center For Wildlife Education and Fish Hatchery parking lot, it was hard to tell whether I was ahead of the Saturday crowd.  Less than a mile in, I passed this tent city along Horse Cove Creek.  Looks like Boy Scouts to me.  Is everyone still sleeping or are they on the trails somewhere?  

When I reached the junction with the John Rock Trail I had not yet met anyone on the trail.  Now, I’d hiked to John Rock once before with friends on a cold, rainy, foggy day and couldn’t see a thing.  So today I made a snap decision to take the inner loop to John Rock.  The weather was fine and just maybe there wouldn’t be a crowd.

Good decision:  had the view from John Rock to Looking Glass Rock all to myself.

Skip the next paragraph unless you majored in logistics and mapmaking in college.

I continued on John Rock Trail to its reconnection with Cat Gap Loop Trail at Horse Cove Gap.  Then came the part that only makes sense to “completers” who want to hike every mile of trail on a map.  I turned left on Cat Gap Loop and walked back to the beginning of John Rock Trail, then did an about-face and backtracked to Horse Cove Gap.  Ready to move forward?  Well, there’s the other half of that figure 8 on the bowtie.  From the gap I went straight ahead onto the Cat Gap Bypass Trail, turned left onto Cat Gap Loop again, passed through Cat Gap itself and circled back yet again to Horse Cove Gap.  Then…another backtrack to Gat Gap. 

Y’all still with me? 

A ridiculously eroded trail:  Cat Gap Bypass

What sound did this tree make when it split?

Here I left Cat Gap whatever behind for a while and stepped onto the Art Loeb Trail, a 30.7-mile trail named in 1969 in honor of the avid hiker and leader of Carolina Mountain Club, a year after he passed away.  (I’ve walked different parts of the Art Loeb and it is high on my list of trails to complete in one trip sometime, a good overnight backpacking endeavor.)

I was nearly outnumbered by people with unleashed dogs today.  You just can’t fight it sometimes or you will have no peace of mind, just accept that if you hike in popular areas on a weekend you will run into this mentality.

The Art Loeb Trail passes this nice campsite near the base of Cedar Rock.

Butter Gap Shelter – I passed by here on my prior hike to John Rock.  The shelter is in a sad state of repair and I wouldn’t choose to sleep here. 

But someone liked the area well enough to move in.  Looks like they plan on staying a while.

I watched this leaf float down from its branch and land softly on the path at my feet – the first sign of fall?  (Of course, I’m writing this way after the fact…)  When I’m hiking I often think about things like this, that I am the only person that saw that leaf fall. Practicing being in the present moment.

A short distance past the shelter I reached Butter Gap, a broad intersection of several trails, some not marked.  Taking a break there were four men, what I call affectionately and unapologetically “good ol’ boys” wearing blue jeans, tee shirts and ball caps, leaning on walking sticks.  They were very friendly, asking me how far I was hiking today.  As I pulled out my trail map to figure out which way to turn, they urged me to consult Bob because he’d been hiking there all his life and knew every trail from every direction.  Bob did set me straight on where my trail was.  I asked the guys where their wives were and they said, oh, them women didn’t like walking so much and getting out of breath.  I said to be sure and report that they had seen one woman who was out here having the time of her life.  

My route now was on the Butter Gap Trail, and I began to encounter more dayhikers making the big loop that includes Cedar Rock and John Rock.  Along Butter Gap Trail is Grogan Creek Falls, very robust and noisy.  A short scramble down the embankment took me right to the base of the falls.  Miraculously, I was again alone for a peaceful moment.

The next point of interest was Pickleshimer Fields, named after the family that lived there long ago.

Yellow fringed orchid

Queen Anne’s lace

Cardinal flower

At the next junction I found myself once again on Cat Gap Loop Trail, where a right turn would carry me back up the mountain toward John Rock, so I made sure to stay left.  Very soon I heard loud rushing water and checked in on Cedar Rock Creek Falls.  For the third time I found myself enjoying nature’s highlight without human company.  How was this possible?  I think many casual hikers don’t read the guidebooks ahead of time and/or they don’t know how to look for side trails to points of interest. 

The last points of interest today were people, not places.  As I came around a curve in the trail I almost literally stumbled over a group of 10 backpackers taking a break, a freshmen orientation group from Duke University out on a multi-day trip.  They chattered about how awesome their experience was, but they looked ready to be done.  Only a couple of miles to go! 

Just when you think you could identify a backpacker in any lineup, you meet someone on the trail who doesn’t fit the typical look.  Just before I finished my hike I met two young guys hiking in for an overnight, one with a bright yellow Mohawk and the other sporting a purple puff of hair on his forehead.  A good reminder to me not to stereotype, especially after the conversation with the good ol’ boys about women not wanting to get sweaty.  

Back in the parking lot after 12 miles of views, waterfalls and interesting people, here’s a fresh pack of Boy Scouts ready to hit the trail.  My son was active in Boy Scouts.  In fact, he went all the way through from Cub Scouts to earning his Eagle Award.  Despite their points of controversy, I give much credit to the organization for their dedication to outdoor experiences for boys.

An hour’s drive back to Lake Junaluska to find Jim, who had “crushed” his bike ride and was kicking back with friends at the hospitality tent.  We cleaned up and went into Waynesville again looking for fine dining, which we found and can recommend at Frog’s Leap Public House, a farm-to-table experience.  Our server introduced himself:  “Hi, my name is Neville and I’ll be your Sherpa this evening.  I’m going to take you to the mountaintop.”  A perfect ending to a great day.

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."  ~Rachel Carson

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

AT Project in VA: New Trail at Pearisburg

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 7/20/14 – Rice Field Shelter Southbound to Pearisburg – 7 Miles

Heavy rain poured down during the night and I was surprised to find water seeping inside my tent.  Maybe I didn’t have my plastic footprint folded up underneath the tent edge properly.  Anyway, at 2:00 a.m. I was sopping up water with my bandana, reaching out of the tent door to squeeze it out, sopping some more.  Not a pond, but a puddle that came too close to my sleeping bag.  Needless to say, not much sleeping going on after that. 

By sunrise the rain had ceased – but for how long?  I stuffed my wet tent and footprint into a garbage bag and strapped it to the outside of my backpack.  Then I packed up my wet everything else, said goodbye to Mike, who was cooking up his usual hot oatmeal breakfast, and I stepped onto the trail southbound.  It was still chilly and wet, but I had crossed fingers that things would clear up and heat up (yes on both counts).  It turned out to be a beautiful day.

As I mentioned, the new reroute of the AT starts right at the shelter, following the former water source trail, descending steeply down the eastern side of Peters Mountain.  The old trail continued along the ridge line with a few more good viewpoints, but the reroute is a welcome improvement for protection of the trail.  Roughly the same length as the former (maybe half a mile shorter) and a little more moderate grade, the new trail is located on land donated by the chemical manufacturer Celanese.  Prior to this the trail passed along tenuous easements between Celanase and inhospitable private landowners.  The reroute is the result of many years of negotiations and work involving the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, a couple of Virginia senators, multiple trail building crews, and Celanese and Columbia Gas.  The section was officially opened in May 2014.  There are no published route revisions yet but here is a good blog post with information.

Excellent trail work on the new section descending Hemlock Ridge

Brand new trail

I put my trust in following white blazes since I had no notes on the route.  Several times the trail crossed or ran a few dozen yards concurrently with unpaved forest roads.   Blazes were excellent so I never worried about where I was going.

Brunch break at a road crossing

The trail passes near the Celanese landfill, marked by a chain link fence.  Made me feel like I was close to the end, but there were still a couple of miles to go as the trail switchbacked down.  (Note:  Don't use any water sources from here on down)

The new trail connects with the old one within about 100 yards of Highway 460.  The Celanese plant is across the highway. 

Following the blazes across a parking lot to a stairway

Up we go

And the white blazes continue on a pedestrian walkway across the New River.  From there the trail turns right into the woods and through those back yards that I passed coming the opposite way yesterday.  For me, I crossed four-lane 460 to my car to wait for Mike (not far behind).  What a great feeling to have this gap filled in!  

“Give me once more a trail I know
That stretches back through the long ago
And yet leads on through the future’s veil
In search of tomorrow’s untrod trail.”  
 ~Earl Shaffer