Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Smokies 900 Round 2 - Gregory Bald

Smokies 900 Round 2 – Gregory Bald Loop – 5/24/15 – 18.5 Miles

Sunlight woke me at 6:00 a.m. and I waited until 6:30 to check if Jeff was awake.  We had devised an ambitious alternate plan that required an early start, a long day, then a real supper and sleeping in our own beds tonight. 

We packed up camp and hauled everything back to the junction of Twentymile and Wolf Ridge Trail, where we stashed backpacks and extraneous gear behind thick rhododendron bushes.  We carried dayhiking essentials plus all our food/trash.  From this point we faced a 16-mile clockwise loop, then just a half-mile hike out with all our gear to Jeff’s truck and we’d be home free.  The high point of our route was Gregory Bald, a broad grassy meadow from which hikers can look down into Cades Cove.  Most people hike to the bald via trails originating in congested Cades Cove, which requires an agonizing slow drive before and after the hike.  For us North Carolinians, though the hike is longer, hiking from Twentymile is so-o-o-o much more remote and enjoyable. 

The first mile on Wolf Ridge Trail was gentle with several footlog crossings of Moore Springs Branch.  

Past the turnoff to Twentymile Loop Trail (where we would return) the next mile was also gentle but my legs detected the slightest uptick in grade.  At the side trail to Campsite 95 we stopped to make adjustments - Jeff duct taped up hot spots on his feet and I downsized to shorts and short sleeves - for the upcoming climb.  There at the trickling Dalton Branch I spotted this flat rock with what I maintain is a wet bear paw print. 

The trail turned sharply right and the hard work began, gaining 2,500 feet in about 3.25 miles.  Jeff ate his lunch early as I tried to fuel up on energy bars, and the trail was nicely switchbacked, but still we walked like snails (do snails walk?)  At least we passed the backpacking group that had spent the previous night at Campsite 95 (they reported no bear activity).  They were heading to Campsite 92 on Long Hungry Ridge Trail for tonight.  

Wood-betony (aka lousewort) 

At about 5.5 miles Wolf Ridge Trail leveled out and passed through Parson Bald.  Unlike Gregory Bald and Andrew Bald, the park service doesn’t maintain this area to keep it open and trees are gradually taking it over.  I enjoyed the mile of flat walking through Parson Bald to Sheep Pen Gap.  At that point where Wolf Ridge intersects Gregory Bald Trail is Campsite 13, a very popular backpacking site, grassy, flat, large enough to accommodate 15 backpackers and 8 horses.  Good luck getting a reservation here and I hope you like company.

Don’t get used to the pleasant walk, there’s some more uphill to reach Gregory Bald, the highlight of the day.  I’ve been here two times before, once at the peak of flame azaleas and once in the wintertime.  Always impressive.  We were a few weeks early for the azalea explosion, but we had a clear day.  The breeze chilled us in our sweat-soaked clothes so we found a protected spot to sit and eat more food.  This was when I noticed my phone camera malfunctioning, probably the SD card going bad.  Jeez, some bad luck, but even a bad day hiking is a good day.  

Jeff at Gregory Bald, looking south

Refreshed and back on the trail, we made a quick mile to the déjà vu junction with Long Hungry Ridge Trail.  At this point again Jeff left me for more peak bagging and again I descended Long Hungry, just like yesterday; however, this time I wasn’t hurrying and the walking was more enjoyable. 

I passed several groups of hikers on this stretch, including our friends Yo and Teddy, who were still snoozing when we left Campsite 93.  They were climbing up to the ridge and over to Campsite 12 (an ambitious plan for them, I thought but did not say) then backtracking tomorrow.  At last, some good karma - Teddy presented me with my lost bandanna that they had picked up on the trail! They told me about a large rattlesnake they had sidestepped and I kept a sharp eye out, but I never saw it. I did cross paths with a good-sized black snake. 

At Campsite 92 I startled a deer who thought she had the place all to herself.  This was another great site, plenty of room for backpackers to spread out.   I treated a liter of water there for the last push and continued to the intersection with Twentymile Loop Trail to wait for Jeff.  My feet and legs were ready to stop but we had 4.6 miles to go.    

Twentymile Loop Trail is not to be confused with Twentymile Trail – in combination with the lower part of Wolf Ridge Trail, the three make up a 5.5-mile loop.  After the drama of Gregory Bald, though, this trail was a bit boring.  If we had been a few weeks earlier we would have seen a nice section of ladyslippers, but now only the decaying foliage remained.  The trail was very narrow and sketchy in some places, with several small ups and downs that we were not in the mood for at this point in the day.  The best thing about it was one more nice crossing of Moore Springs Branch.  We closed the loop at Wolf Ridge Trail again, turned left and backtracked a mile to retrieve our gear for the half-mile to the parking area.  Day is done.

One more loss to make this my most expensive overnight backpack- ing trip on record:  extremely tired, very sore feet, I was inattentive and I forgot my hiking poles leaning against the truck. They probably fell to the ground as we backed up and I didn’t miss them until the next morning at home when I unpacked.  I hope somebody else is enjoying them now.

FYI, the Wildwood Grill at Fontana Village is a decent place to eat, not elaborate but the basics.  Back home by 10:00 p.m.

“It is still insisted there can be nothing finer than this trip to Gregory Bald at azalea time, and the ascent made by moonlight.”  ~Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Bulletin, 1937

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Smokies 900 Round 2: Shuckstack - The Price of a Priceless View

Smokies 900 Round 2 – Shuckstack Lookout Tower Loop – 5/23/15 – 17.2 Miles

Jim was participating in the Mountains of Misery bike ride for Memorial Day Weekend and I felt like I needed some Great Smoky Mountains exposure.  Even though I’ve hiked every trail in the park, there is an intangible tether that keeps drawing me back.  Lucky for me, my hiking friend Jeff hadn’t been to Twentymile in the Smokies…yet.

Staring at the trail map, hiking routes began to emerge, two big loops, one including Shuckstack lookout tower and another passing over Gregory Bald, with the intriguing option of camping close to parking and not having to haul heavy loaded backpacks.  Sitting in my living room with that map, I felt my endurance superpowers flexing – 17 miles one day, 12 miles the next, about 6 for the walk out.  Sounds like a plan. 

Another first for me:  the online backcountry reservation system.  This being a holiday weekend, openings were scarce especially for Sunday night.  I booked two spaces for two nights at Campsite 93.

After a very early start Saturday morning and a long drive past Bryson City and Fontana Dam, Jeff and I arrived at the Twentymile Ranger Station, the last entrance into the GSMNP before reaching Tennessee. The parking lot was more than half full.  Assembling gear for a backcountry weekend is standard for me now, but this time I added a daypack strapped on the outside of my backpack.  Our campsite was 1.5 miles from the car.  The plan was to hike in, set up camp, fill up with water and put essentials in my daypack before continuing on our loop. 

Twentymile Falls on Twentymile Creek

A mere mile-and-a-half in, Campsite 93 was not inviting - looked like wild boars had rooted around the fire ring, plowing up dirt.  No level spots for tents…but a more extensive walk-around showed a long, narrow flat area by the creek.  Jeff claimed a tight spot beside the water and I chose a space near one end of the larger area.  I couldn’t fully erect my Lightheart tent because I needed hiking poles for the day, but I staked it out as a large bright fuschia diamond shape on the ground as a signal that signal someone was planning to park there for the night. 

Continuing on Twentymile Trail, I was fascinated with the profusely blooming lyre-leaved sage and yellow star grass.  A gentle breeze blew the tiny flowers enough that clear photos were impossible. 

What we had hoped to find:  flame azalea

And mountain laurel (Jeff's photo)

Rattlesnake hawkweed

Critter holes

Meadow parsnip, also hard to get in focus

Purple phacelia

Focal point of our hike:  Shuckstack lookout tower away up there

We turned right onto the AT and continued gradually ascending to the turnoff to Shuckstack.  I’ve visited the tower several times and remembered that the steps were precarious, hand rails were missing, and I told Jeff I would wave to him from the safety of the ground if he climbed up.  What a pleasant surprise to find that the tower has had some TLC renovations, new treads and complete hand rails!  Made it all the way to the cab…which looked untouched, rotting plywood floor…well, I’m here now so might as well enjoy the view.

Looking east and north and down at Fontana Lake

Looking north into the heart of the Smokies

All that remains of the caretaker’s cabin at the base of the lookout tower

Jeff on the tower steps

After lunch with a view, Jeff headed to the bottom.  As I swung my daypack onto my shoulders, my camera slipped off of the pack belt and fell to the ground.   Look out below!  Jeff rescued it, and at first it appeared to just have a dinged corner (it was inside its padded case), but it wouldn’t turn on.  Maybe the battery wasn’t connecting?  A good thing I had my cell phone with its camera.  The hike must go on.

We turned back onto the AT, retraced steps to the intersection with Twentymile, and continued on the AT to the next intersection with Gregory Bald Trail.  Along this section we spotted wild geranium, spiderwort, what looked like monkshood (not sure, seemed too early) and lots of Catesby’s trillium and Vasey’s trillium.  Jeff left the trail for his usual obscure peakbagging thrills and I kept going, with an agreement to catch up again at the intersection of Gregory Bald Trail and Long Hungry Ridge Trail.

Hairy Buttercup

Wild azalea buds

After the wide open boulevard of the AT, Gregory Bald Trail was surprisingly faint and overgrown, making me feel a little isolated.  My caution radar turned up.  Less than five minutes on the trail, I heard a loud grunt and saw three black shapes.  Two of them ran left and one ran across the trail to the right.  Oh dear – a mama bear and cubs?  I didn’t dare go further for fear of walking between them.  I banged my hiking sticks together, yelling, “Hey bear!” and then the critter to the right ran back across the trail.  Not a bear – a wild boar!  An even rarer sighting and potentially even more dangerous.  Boars are mostly nocturnal and this was the middle of the afternoon.  Their presence in daylight and remembering the rooting evidence back at camp made me realize that they were quite prevalent in this section of the Smokies.

A quarter-mile later I encountered a man hiking toward me on the trail.  I warned him about the wild boars, and he relayed a long story about a female turkey harassing him, running around him in circles, squawking and threatening.  I found this a little farfetched, said my goodbyes and good lucks, and continued on.  [Jeff met the same guy later, wouldn’t stop talking about that turkey.]

Well…the same turkey harassed me.  I kept moving quickly through her ‘hood and she didn’t pursue me.  Probably defending her nest.

At the Long Hungry Ridge/Gregory Bald intersection I waited for Jeff, worried about the time and hiking in the dark.  From that junction it was six miles back to Campsite 93.  No pen to write a note, so I made a stick arrow on the ground and hoped that Jeff would interpret that as me “moving on.”  I left at 5:20 p.m.

I sped along the 4.6 miles of downhill, but not too fast to appreciate more mountain laurel, Bowman’s root and false Solomon’s seal. 

After passing Campsite 92 the trail leveled out and the mountain laurel formed a glowing white arbor in the waning light.  Somewhere along there I lost my bandanna, a favorite from my Hike For Discovery days.  I also picked up a red bandanna earlier in the day.  Not a fair trade.

For those of you following along my counterclockwise loop, I made a right turn onto Twentymile again and hiked 1.5 miles back to our base camp, making record time and arriving around 7:30 p.m.  There was another tent – right beside mine.   What up??

Meet Yo and Teddy, University of Tennessee graduates preparing to enter med school, on their first ever backpacking trip.  Teddy had some camping experience from Boy Scouts and they followed my example for tent placement.  What was supposed to be a site filled with eight campers ended up being just us, and these guys were delightful.  We chatted nonstop as we cooked dinner by the fire ring, and I was beyond excited when Teddy lit a small campfire, something my backpacker friends never bother with. 

I kept one eye out for Jeff and felt relieved when his headlamp came bobbing down the trail at about 8:15 p.m.  As he cooked his supper, he asked me to look at an irritant in his eye.  Well, here were two med students who would love to play doctor! 

Gains, losses, wild animals, new friends – a very long and rewarding day outdoors.  Dirty, tired, well fed and loving life.  This is why we do this.  And… here comes another headlamp!  The weird turkey guy walked up to our campfire and began regaling us again with his harrowing story.  After about two minutes of that, I said good night, John Boy, crawled into my pretty pink tent by the creek, fell asleep to the sound of gurgling water.

“It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.” ~Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1917

Monday, July 6, 2015

Grandfather Mountain: Profile Trail & Calloway Peak

Grandfather Mountain State Park – 5/1/15 - Profile Trail/Callaway Peak – 7 Miles

Something rustling in the dark… Is that a mouse?  No, it’s Jim up very early getting ready for his big bike challenge.  We had to get organized and leave our hotel room at crack-of-dawn-thirty.  He planned to ride his bike to the starting line in Banner Elk and I wanted to be far out of the way when hundreds of cyclists swarmed the roads.  A hike at Grandfather Mountain would entertain me for just the right amount of time to return to the finish line at the top of Beech Mountain.

Gearing up for the Beech Mountain Metric

Although I’ve lived in North Carolina for 34 years, I have avoided hiking at Grandfather Mountain because the weather is such a significant factor.  Wintertime means extreme cold, record-breaking wind gusts and icy conditions.  Summertime means quickly developing thunderstorms with too little time to get off the exposed rocky areas at the summits.  Spring and fall – well, it’s always crowded.  I did hike there once in late 2013 and found the trail to be arduous and slow going.  But today I was in the neighborhood, so I sucked it up with the attitude that I’ll get however far I get and be ready to bail out. 

Most NC state parks are free, but Grandfather was formerly privately owned and has infrastructure and substantial maintenance needs, so a fee is charged at the main entrance.  Then you can drive on up to the Mile High Swinging Bridge and restaurant and various trailheads.  However, if you’re willing to walk, the Profile Trail access on Highway 105 is free.  Get there early.

What a glorious morning!  The trail was lush and meticulously maintained.  I noted many wildflowers that I saw at Big Creek in GSMNP a few weeks ago, plus a couple of new ones like rosy twisted stalk and large flowered bellwort.



The spotlight flower of the day was umbrella leaf in full flower, its enormous leaves blanketing the sloping mountainside

Each bloom more intricate and beautiful than the one before

Okay, now I’ll stop!

The elevation gradually steepened and I slowed down.  Boulders began to appear alongside the trail.

The namesake attraction of the trail:  the Profile.  On my way back down I met a cute young couple here and took their picture.  They were very excited because this was their second hike – EVER (their first was Crowders Mountain).  They were from the NC coast. 

Some impressive stone and trail work on a section called “Peregrine’s Flight”

White violets lining the trail

At Shanty Spring – hope you have enough water! 

The last .4 miles to the top of the Profile Trail has a seriously different character than the lower section.  The grade is extremely steep and climbs up a field of large boulders.  Why don’t I have any pictures of this?  I was working too hard! 

At the intersection of the Profile Trail and the Grandfather Trail, the morning was still young so I turned left to continue on to Calloway Peak, the 5,964-foot high point of Grandfather Mountain.  Still going up, of course, and this .4-mile section features some ladders and rock scrambling.  At this elevation the forest features spruce and fir trees and I spotted a couple of late-blooming painted trilliums.

If you do this hike, don’t skip the little side jaunt to Watauga View just a short distance from Calloway Peak summit.  On this clear day I was more than a little excited at this view featuring a faint Hawksbill and Table Rock on the horizon (they look like cat's ears).  I have seen these two iconic peaks from many points in my hiking life, especially during my Mountains-To-Sea Trail days. 

Creamy white witch-hobble blooming at Watauga View

At the summit of Calloway Peak, looking at MacRae Peak (which also features a little-bit-scary ladder climb). 

There were half a dozen hikers at the peak and more on the way so I didn’t linger.  I had a timetable to get back to meet up with Jim.  The hike back down the rocks was a challenge in reverse.  I met about 30 people on the return, many of them asking me how far to the top and was it worth it.  I tried not to judge those who had on flip flops and were talking on their cell phones.  They would learn a lesson without my input. 

At the parking lot, the rangers had closed access and were directing cars away.  Again, get there early!  Driving back to up Beech Mountain, I slowly and cautiously passed weary cyclists on their insane climb to the finish line.  I decided that I like hiking best. 

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”  ~Rachel Carson