This Hiking Life

I’m a hiker, hike leader and outdoor writer.

I blog abEdgy in Montreat Wildernessout my outdoor life, mostly in the Southern Appalachians and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina and our national parks.

I’m writing a book on visiting all the national parks in the Southeast – the battlefields, monuments, historic sites as well as the traditional national parks. My book, titled Forests, Alligators, Battlefields, will come out next year, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

I’m involved in outdoor and conservation issues. I hope these blog notes will inspire you to go and explore the outdoors, wherever you are.

See my bio if you want to know more.

Hope to meet on the trail! Danny

Caldwell Fork Loop – Friends of the Smokies

Woody House
Woody House

To cancel or not to cancel? That is always a difficult question when the weather forecast promises thunderstorms as well as rain all day. Friends of the Smokies says that we go “rain or shine” but thunderstorms always gives us pause. Thankfully, I am just a “consultant” on that decision.

So the April hike to Caldwell Fork in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was postponed until this week – on Earth Day, of all days. I was very happy to see thirteen hikers on Wednesday, including three new members.

Big poplars on Caldwell Fork Trail
Big poplars on Caldwell Fork Trail

I wrote about the hike in detail when we scouted it last month. What was different this time were the profusion of flowers. White  violets were at the trailhead. Then more violets of all shades, several types of trillium, phacelias …. Some hikers were taking pictures of every flower we identified while others used flowers as an excuse for a break.

We stopped at the Union cemetery on Caldwell Fork Trail. Two grave stones cover three bodies, according to Hiking Trail of the Smokies. The sun was so  strong that I couldn’t get a good picture of the stones. The best place for lunch is always the Big Poplars.

20150423FOTS2015Caldwellfork 016AAnna Lee, dressed in her smart new dark blue FOTS shirt, gave a brief talk about a couple of projects that Friends of the Smokies supports. Several people asked about volunteering for trail work on the Trails Forever program. That is so gratifying to me. Another regular hiker had just joined the Clingmans Dome volunteer group. We need you all.

Water laid on the Caldwell Fork Trail in several places. I was very concerned that a hiker took off her shoes to wade across in bare feet. That is so dangerous. You never know what is down there that you can’t see.

Then the ending highlight – the Woody House on Rough Fork Trail. We loitered around the house like we had just moved in. See the top picture. But wait, that wasn’t the only highlight. Holly Demuth, Director of North Carolina FOTS office, walked to the Woody House and gave us a little pitch about Friends.

We’ll be leading the next hike on Tuesday, May 12. To register for a Classic Hike of the Smokies, contact

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park – My last Southeastern park

On Cumberland Gap
On Cumberland Gap

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (CUGA) is only two and a half hours from Asheville.

The first sign for CUGA is over fifty-five miles away as I get off I-81 and unto US 25E. Here the local road name is Davy Crockett Parkway, when I’m all psyched about going into Daniel Boone Country. However, Crockett was born in east Tennessee, while Boone was just passing through. Boone, born in Pennsylvania, grew up on the Yadkin River Valley in North Carolina.

I expected to learn about Daniel Boone, but the park is so much more. I already wrote about the Hensley Settlement. The park seems to be changing to adjust to the times. The highlight is Cumberland Gap.

I park at Thomas Walker parking area and walk the Object Lesson Road, an ominous name. The gravel road was built in 1907 and funded by the Federal Government to convince voters of the convenience of good roads. This gravel road takes me to Cumberland Gap. The gap isn’t large but it has this sweet sign, which says.

Salt seeking buffalo
Moccasin clad warrior
Dreaming pioneer
Battling Civil War soldier
Each was here in the Cumberland Gap and now so are you.

That pretty much encapsulates the history of Cumberland Gap. At 1,600 feet elevation, the gap was the lowest point where people in the southern states could cross the Appalachian Mountains. To put it in perspective, Newfound Gap at the Tennessee-North Carolina boundary is at 5,000 feet.

Dr. Thomas Walker was the first white man to explore and write about the gap in 1750. He was said to discover the gap, something that the Indians had known for centuries. American Indians created the Warrior Path, while hunting bison. But Walker gets the credit because he wrote about the gap, which to me shows the power of documentation.

In 1769, Daniel Boone first came through the gap. Land speculator Richard Henderson commissioned Boone to lead a group of axmen to blaze a trail, which became known as the Wilderness Trail. When we say blaze in this case, we don’t mean that they painted white blazes on trees like the Appalachian Trail. They cut a path through the gap with axes, literally opening up Kentucky to settlers. That encouraged 200,000 to 300,000 settlers to cross Cumberland Gap looking for their own piece of land. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark walked through the gap, separately, in 1806 when they returned from their western expeditions.

Royal Colonial Boundary of 1666
Royal Colonial Boundary of 1666

A side trail veers off to Tri-State Peak, where you can stand in three states: Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Each state has a plaque with its vital statistic, straight out of an encyclopedia – capitol, state bird, state flower, number of counties. A sign for the Royal Colonial Boundary of 1665 marks the border between the Colony of Virginia and the Province of Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean westward across North America.

I continue down the Wilderness Trail, stopping at the Iron Furnace and the entrance to Gap Cave. I want to retrace my steps to go back up to the gap into Kentucky the way settlers did it. At the gap, I take the Wilderness Road Trail, which is supposed to be part of the original Boone trail, dated 1780 to 1810.

Daniel Boone Trail marker
Daniel Boone Trail marker

The Daughters of the American Revolution placed a massive four-sided rock structure to commemorate the Daniel Boone Trail. The DAR from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina–Boone did live in North Carolina — have put up a plaque for their state. They all include the words “From North Carolina to Kentucky.” The DAR is everywhere.

I read that the trail through the gap used to be the old US 25E. I find it hard to picture it as I walk back up what was the southbound lane of the old highway. For decades, a modern highway went right up to the historic gap. As cars and trucks came through the gap, it was called Massacre Mountain, because of the number of accidents. In 1996, US 25E was rerouted by building a tunnel through Cumberland Mountain from Tennessee to Kentucky. Later Congress appropriated funds to restore the gap to its historic condition. In 2001, the park service removed the concrete and reshaped the contour to what it was supposed to be during Daniel Boone’s time. I walk to the gap and I can’t see any sign of a highway, which means that the reroute was a success.

I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere!

CUGA is the last park in my quest to visit all the national parks in the Southeast, seventy-one (71) in all. I first visited parks in a thorough, deliberate manner in 2010, though I had been to many national parks before. This five-year project took me from Jean Lafitte in Louisiana to Cape Lookout in North Carolina, Christiansted in the Virgin Islands to Cumberland Gap in Kentucky. Now comes the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and my book, Forests, Alligators, Battlefields: My journey through the national parks of the south.

Hensley Settlement at Cumberland Gap

Hensley Settlement
Hensley Settlement

Don’t confuse the park with what they’re trying to preserve. I keep telling myself that as I wander around the Hensley Settlement at Cumberland Gap National Historic Site.

Daniel Boone first came through Cumberland Gap in 1769. Later he brought a group of settlers over the gap so that they could make a better life for themselves in the fertile land of the Ohio River Valley.

Sherman Hensley brought his wife and growing family to the top of Brush Mountain in 1903. They were going back in time, living a pioneer life without even a road. They certainly never had electricity. Several other related families settled on this high plateau. They were successful in that at their zenith, the community had 50 to 100 people and forty structures – houses, barns, corn mill, and blacksmith shop. The park signs say that the Hensley settlement used the same frontier skills that their great-great-grandfathers used in the mountain hollows in the 1800s.

But why go back to pioneer ways? The park information doesn’t really explain but leads you to believe that the male leaders wanted to live a self-sufficient life on their own land. A chat with a ranger and a little searching around leads me to a more believable answer. It was an easy place to make moonshine.

Dwarf-crested Irises
Dwarf-crested Irises

You can visit the Hensley settlement on a ranger-led tour, which starts mid-May. But I was here now, and the road is closed at other times. So the only way was to walk the Shillalah Creek Road over ten miles round-trip to get to the settlement. It was a sunny spring day. Dwarf-crested irises and other spring flowers lined the trail, keeping me amused as I plodded up.

The park has preserved 67 acres. Many buildings and fences have been restored. Of most interest was the schoolhouse, though the building was locked. Most children went to school until they were nine years old. Then they were put to work. Men went into town about once a week, but a woman only once every several weeks. Children never got off the mountain until they were adults. The last person left in 1951. By then, most men had gotten better jobs in factories.

Old man Hensley had twenty-three children, all apparently with the same woman. The cemetery is very telling about the status of women in the settlement. Sherman and his wife are only one of two double graves with fancy headstones.

20150418CUGA02 020A Sherman lived to be 98 years old but his wife, Nicy Ann, died when she was 53. Or was it Nicey, as it says on the footstone, along with a different birth date.

20150418CUGA02 022A They couldn’t even get her personal details right. The women who lived in the coal mining camp at Big South Fork were positively liberated, compared to this settlement.

I meet a father and daughter who came up by horseback and discuss the status of women in this isolated community. In contrast, some bloggers who visited the settlement with rangers wax poetic about the birds chirping and the simple life.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like my visit to the settlement. I question the picture of the idyllic lifestyle. I try not to confuse the park with the resource it’s trying to preserve.

Caldwell Fork Hike – Wed April 22

White TrilliumHikers, let’s try it again. On Earth Day!

Due to flash flood warnings, Classic Hikes of the Smokies rescheduled the Caldwell Fork Loop Hike to next Wednesday April 22. We are a resilient bunch and we are going to try it again! I hope we have better luck with the weather this time around.

Join Friends of the Smokies and hike through history in Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s Cataloochee Valley. We’ll enjoy scenic views, wildflowers, rushing creeks, a grave site and a historic home along Caldwell Fork Loop.


Caldwell Fork Loop, is 9.4 miles in length with a total elevation gain of 1,650 feet, it is moderately difficult. Hikers will visit the historic Woody House and a union gravesite.

The hike first begins on Big Fork Ridge Trail and flows clockwise into the heart of the Caldwell country, one of the three settlements in the Cataloochee community. This hike blends the old with the new from the historic Woody Home to the reintroduction of elk in 2001. The elk in Cataloochee Valley have grown to a sustainable population over the years and graze the valley during dawn and dusk. During the morning hours hikers may have the opportunity to view these amazing creatures.

To sign up, contact Anna Lee at or 828-452-0720.


Forests, Alligators, Battlefields – How to tell the world about national parks and my book

Rowe Copeland
Rowe Copeland

As I’m writing this, several politicians have announced their candidacy for president of the United States. The election will occur on Tuesday November 8, 2016. That’s over a year and a half from now.

But you know what else is happening next year? The National Park Service is turning 100 years old. We’ll be celebrating all year, though the official date is August 25, 2016.

My book, Forests, Alligators, Battlefields will also be coming out in April, 2016. How can I even hope to get any coverage? I need a book publicist.

Right now I’ve got an editor, a consultant and a book designer. It wasn’t easy to settle on a book publicist, especially since I’m adamant that I wanted to meet everyone I hired. So no Nooo York publicist.

Also, unlike an editor or book designer, it’s not as easy to evaluate the work of a publicist. I had read some horror stories about publicists who promised the moon but didn’t deliver. Of course, no one can promise that you’ll get on NPR’s Fresh Air or in my case, in Backpacker Magazine.

But a book publicist should help me get book reviews, get into bookstores and outdoor stores where I don’t have contacts and find me opportunities for guest blogs. This is kind of the minimum. But with my book, I want someone who would like my book and enjoy publicizing it.

I contacted four regional publicists. One was not enthusiastic and not in the outdoors at all. Two looked promising but all they kept telling me is how busy they were and books from independent publishers were sooo hard to market. That kind of attitude was not a good start for a relationship.

Rowe Copeland, the Book Concierge, was very enthusiastic. She had worked with Andra Watkins who wrote Not without my Father, about her walk on the Natchez Parkway. Rowe had even been in Ocmulgee National Monument. This is her full-time business. We seemed to click.

Greenville sculpture
Greenville sculpture

We met in Greenville, SC, where she lives. It’s a pleasant town and easy to get to from Asheville, not a requirement but a nice bonus. The pig is one of many interesting features in downtown Greenville.

It’s not too early to hire a publicist, given that the good ones get booked up. You certainly don’t want to wait until you publish your book to try to figure out how to market it.

So as I start marketing my book, you’ll hear all about it here. I’m excited.