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This Hiking Life Blog

This Hiking Life is a mix of my hiking trips in the Southern Appalachians, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and recently, Le Chemin de St. Jacques. It also discusses outdoor and conservation issues. I hope these blog notes will inspire you to go and explore the mountains of North and South Carolina and beyond. Hope to meet on the trail! Danny

Scouting a Hike with new Friends of the Smokies Staff

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 28, 2014 04:25 PM

20140826FOTSAndrewsbald 052A.jpgI've always said that every hike is different, even if the trails are the same.

A couple of days ago, I scouted a hike for the September 9 Friends of the Smokies hike with Anna Lee Zanetti, the new Development & Outreach Associate in the North Carolina office. Friends had decided that it was time to move up from interns, as good as they were, to permanent staff. So, welcome, Anna Lee.

20140826FOTSAnnaleeonMST041A.jpgAnna Lee comes with great qualifications and most important to me, she is eager to hike. Yippee! Here she is on top of Clingmans Dome at the western end of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

We scouted a hike that shows off so many important aspects of the park. We started on the Clingmans Dome road and walked westbound on the MST, which is also southbound on the Appalachian Trail.

This section, among the spruce-fir forest, is the only piece of trail where the MST and A.T. are concurrent. We met a couple of A.T. southbounders and even a flip-flopper. The guy had started in Hot Springs, walked to Katahdin, Maine. Then he got himself back to Hot Springs and is walking south to Springer, GA. I made sure that he knew that he was also on the MST.

20140826FOTSclingmansdome045A.jpgAt the Clingmans Dome tower, Anna Lee and I hunkered down and had our lunch. The assortment of people who had come up from the parking lot were not prepared for the wind and fog.

Here's an Eastern View from Clingmans Dome but we couldn't see the ocean. Hah! Hah! or even Mt. Mitchell. I don't think this will win a prize in the MST photo contest. I've got to try harder.

Once back in the parking lot, we walked out to Andrews Bald on Forney Ridge Trail. This was the first trail that was rehabilitated with money from Trails Forever, funded by Friends of the Smokies. The view at Andrews Bald was magnificent. See the top picture.

Getting a Ride back to our cars

Our car was about 3.5 miles down the road from Clingmans Dome. We could have taken two cars but it was an long, long way to drive from Asheville. So I suggested to Anna Lee that we could probably get a ride back to our car. She was a little skeptical.

"Or worse come to worse, we could walk back another 3.6 miles" I said.

When we got to Andrews Bald, I looked around for a likely driver to give us a ride. A couple from northern Michigan was enjoying the view and I went to chat with them.

The view, Friends of the Smokies, wasn't the Forney Ridge trail beautiful? And oh, any chance we could get a ride from you back to our car?

Of course, they said.

They got back to the parking lot only a few minutes after us, found their car, and picked us up at the trail sign. It was so easy that it didn't even challenge my skills at getting a ride.

Anna Lee and I will lead the hike on Tuesday September 9. We will have enough cars so I won't have to get rides for everyone. But if you want to really challenge me...

To register for this or any upcoming Classic Hike of the Smokies, contact or 828-452-0720.

Cold Mountain with Carolina Mountain Club

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 26, 2014 08:45 PM

20140824ColdMountain.JPGOn Sunday, I went up to Cold Mountain with Carolina Mountain Club. It was the standard, scheduled Sunday hike. Because the hike is in the Shining Rock Wilderness, the group size was restricted to 10 people. Brent Martin, who works for the Wilderness Society, was certainly going to keep to the legal limit.

I signed up for the hike almost two months ago. But to my surprise, only eight people showed up. I was sure that this hike was going to be a sell-out a month ago. I only knew Beth R., and Brent and his wife Angela. The others were new to the club.

It was a tough hike - 10.4 miles and 3,400 feet, according the CMC schedule. But all the climbing was on the way out to the top. Some of the trail was flattish, so it was more like 3,400 feet in about four miles. The trail was rocky and steep; no nice switchbacks like in the Smokies.

The first time I hiked up Cold Mountain must have been 2001, when we moved to Asheville. Tom Sanders, the leader, didn't know me and explained how difficult it was going to be. He was right.

I've done it several times since then. But I was surprised that none of the hikers I did the Cold Mountain then were on this hike. What hike were they doing?

The top was all foggy and I felt sorry for those who had reached the top for the first time. The picture I took was on top so I couldn't back up enough to get the whole group in. Sorry to those who got cut out of the picture. Maybe I'll see you on another CMC hike.

National Park Service in 98 years old on Monday Aug. 25

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 23, 2014 12:00 PM
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2014FOTSNewtonbaldhike-02A.jpgGreat Smoky Mountains National Park will celebrate the 98th birthday of the National Park Service on Monday, August 25. There will be many ranger-led programs at park visitor centers. Of course, you can enjoy exploring the park along a scenic roadway, trail, or river on your own.

This is like a practice run for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. On Monday, August 25, all park entrances in all parks will be free. There are just two more entrance-fee-free days this year: September 27, to mark National Public Lands Day, and November 11, Veterans Day.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Acting Superintendent Cindy MacLeod said "We look forward to the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.”

Most units of the park system don't charge fees, and that includes the Smokies. Just 133 of the 401 units have entrance fees.

Leading a group through Hazel Creek

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 20, 2014 03:55 PM
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20140820GSMAHazelcreek700.jpgThe Smokies are my home park. I seem to be in one part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park or another every week. But some areas of the park are much more popular and accessible than others.

About six months ago, Lisa Duff, marketing director of Great Smoky Mountains Association, asked if I would lead a hike to Bone Valley from Hazel Creek. I hadn’t been on that trail since 2008, when I did a three-day backpack with Sharon, Smoky Scout, the bang-on start to her Smokies 900M challenge. The Hazel Creek trail starts in the deserted town of Proctor. The fastest way to get there is a 30-minute boat shuttle across Fontana Lake.

But here, we weren’t going to backpack.

“Sure, “I told Lisa, “I’d love to. But this is not a day hike.” The drive to Fontana Village is over two hours from Asheville. “We need to stay at Fontana Village the night before. And I won’t be able to scout the hike. I’m sure I can find my way.” Lisa and Marti, also in Marketing, put the overnight trip together. They screened the hikers before they signed up. Marti is a Smokies 900M as well and a strong hiker.

On Monday, I drove out to Fontana Village, a historic resort in the southwest corner of the Smokies. I had volunteered to lead a half-day hike as well.20140820GSMAHazelCreek530.jpg It seemed worthwhile to get as much in as possible since I never know when I’ll get the opportunity again.  Only two other hikers took me up on the half-day hike.

We drove to Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the Eastern US but the access road across the dam was closed for maintenance. So we walked the road and walked another 0.5 mile to the trailhead.

We took Lakeshore Trail, a flattish trail, to the old cars. Where did these cars come from? You can read an article that I wrote for National Parks Traveler.

Here’s a quickie summary. The area north of the lake was not part of the original park. During World War II, TVA flooded NC 288 to create Fontana Dam and Fontana Lake. The residents had to move out, quite quickly. Some left their cars in place. Remember that during the war, there was tire and gas rationing. And who knows how well these cars were working.

But Hazel Creek predates that history. The Ritter Lumber Company came in the area in 1902 to log the area. By the 1920s, Proctor was a modern town with electricity, schools, and even a movie theater. When Ritter decided that they had brought down every tree worth logging, they left the area, taking everything with them. Many logging families went with them to the Pacific Northwest. The ones left were back to subsistence farming.

On Tuesday, 20 hikers took the Fontana ferry to Proctor. We crossed Hazel Creek on a substantial bridge and started walking. The trail is maintained as an administrative road because park SUVs travel up to maintain the Hall Cabin, our destination. It climbs ever so gently that I thought we’d be able to keep the group together.

But alas, by mid-morning, some had shot ahead of me and others stayed with Marti, who was acting as sweep,
We turned on Bone Valley Trail, a short minor trail that would take us to the Hall cabin. There were five water crossings, about calf-deep on me.

Each person took the crossing a different way. A few just got into the water without hesitation. I was part of that group. My boots and socks got wet but my feet were protected from rocks, roots and anything else that I couldn’t see at the bottom of the flowing stream.

Others changed into water shoes, which offered less protection but kept their boots dry. A couple of hikers used flip-flops, which seemed dangerous on the ankles. And a few others walked barefoot. A woman slipped and fell in. I’m not sure which group she belonged to. By the time she righted herself, it didn’t matter how wet her feet were.

By now, we were in two major groups: slow and fast. We all had lunch at the Hall Cabin, a large cabin built in 1892. The Halls took in tourists that wanted to fish in the Smokies before it became a park. I took a few hikers to the Bone Valley cemetery. When it was time to recross the five creeks on Bone Valley Trail, some took it slowly and carefully.

Turning back on Hazel Creek, a few of us climbed the Jenkins Ridge Cemetery. Cemeteries are often put at the top of a hill, saving the best bottomland for farming. I’m not sure if “Jenkins Ridge” is the official name of the cemetery but it was located close to the junction of Hazel Creek and Jenkins Ridge Trail. It was obvious that Decoration Day had occurred recently. The graves were all mounted neatly, a Southern Appalachian tradition and new plastic flowers had been stuck in the ground.

We walked at our own pace. We had asked for the boat to come back for us at 5:45 pm and it was obvious that we were going to be quite early. We gathered at the Calhoun House, a frame house that is falling apart. This house, built in 1928, was quite modern. It had electricity, a hot water heater, running water and even an indoor bathroom.

I gave at least three tours inside the house. Some hikers were afraid to go into the house by themselves. “No, there are no ghosts,” I told a woman, “but there are a couple of bats hanging from the ceiling.

After the park acquired the Calhoun house along with the rest of the North Shore land from TVA, they used the house as a ranger station. But now they’re built a modern structure behind the house and the historic house is feeling the neglect.

Ken, our friendly captain, showed up on time. He had a huge cooler full of alcoholic drinks as well as sodas and water. What a lovely surprise. I would have killed for a hot cup of tea but that was not to be until I got to a Chinese buffet in Asheville.
With the side trips to the cemeteries, we walked 16 miles and still smiled. All in all, a great success.  

Driving the Smokies, looking for GPS points

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 16, 2014 01:40 PM
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MST Clingmans Dome - 4

Yesterday I drove over 220 miles in and out of back roads in Great Smoky Mountains National Park but didn't hike one of these miles. On such a beautiful day, I was on a mission and in my car. Sad...

Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is writing a trail guide for the 1,000 miles MST across North Carolina. It will be first trail guide written by volunteers and owned by Friends of the MST. We have a capable professional editor at the helm, so the guide will be accurate and up-to-date. All sections will have the same format. I'm writing the first section in the mountains: Clingmans Dome to Waterrock Knob.

I've written the directions [turn left, turn right] and the other required sections. Only the GPS points for the parking areas remained. That was the job for yesterday.

If you look at the Smokies map, they still show the old route that starts at Clingmans Dome and ends at Mingus Mill. Now, the MST will go down Deep Creek but head for Smokemont campground, up Bradley Fork and Chasteen Creek and eventually end up on Straight Fork Road. From there, you walk to Pin Oak Gap and on Heintooga Rd. If you can't picture the route, get a map where those trails might be clearer.

FMSTdriveSocogapsign 05A.jpgI was using my car GPS.

First stop was Waterrock Knob, the end of my guide section. Motorcyclists were already in the parking lot, admiring the views. I must say that I just wrote down the points and moved on.

Going backwards, or west, I stopped at Soco Gap where I saw the sign above.

The piece of paper says NO EXIT.

What it means that you can hike the MST from Soco Gap but it won't take you to Waterrock Knob, at this time. The Carolina Mountain Club is still working on building the route to Waterrock Knob.  They're getting there. But for now, at some point, you will hit a trail under construction and then, just a forest.

Then up to Heintooga Road, off the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at every named overlook to get a GPS point. When I reached the one-way section, I had a choice. Do I drive the unmaintained road at 15 miles an hour or do I turn around and go through Cherokee and out Straight Fork Rd? I chose the latter, though Straight Fork Rd is just as unmaintained and no picnic to drive either. These minor park entrances are not on the tourist circuit.

Back through Cherokee, following the speed limit meticulously, I finally got to Oconaluftee Visitor Center. I went in to say hello to the rangers behind the desk, dropped off Friends of the MST pamphlets and signed copies of my books, being sold at the park bookstore.

Finally up to Clingmans Dome in the afternoon. The parking area was almost full. I visited the Clingmans Dome information station and went through the same routine as in OVC - hello, give them FMST pamphlets and sign. But here, I paused to admire the view. See above.

It was a slow drive down Newfound Gap Rd. A little way before Oconaluftee Visitor Center, an elk with a large rack of antlers, was just ambling in a field. There was a full-on elk jam, complete with visitors out of their car and getting too close to the elk. Others stopped in the middle of the road to take a picture and a volunteer in uniform trying to keep order.

But what was that male elk doing by himself? Why wasn't he working on getting his harem together? The rut--mating season--is starting and he's wasting time just parading for visitors. One possibility is that he's an geezer elk and past his prime.

Always something new in the Smokies, even if I didn't walk a mile. Watch for the MST instructions on the web in a little while.

Carolina Mountain Club and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail are number one!

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 14, 2014 08:25 AM

logocmccolor.jpgCarolina Mountain Club and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail have been voted number one. But I could have told you that.

The Mountain Xpress just published the results of their 2014 readers' poll. They have 561 categories.

In the Hiking Club category, Carolina Mountain Club was voted number one for at least the second year in a row. We're the largest hiking club in Western North Carolina, but certainly not the only one. We did have legitimate competition.

LogoFMST.jpgThe Mountains-to-Sea Trail was voted the best Hiking Trail in Western North Carolina. The trail has been voted the best for a few years because it is now in the Hall of Fame. They even printed the Friends of the MST website. In case you're wondering, the Appalachian Trail came is second and the Art Loeb Trail through Pisgah National Forest was third. So the competition was real.

But there are other reasons to feel good over these votes.

Only a few years ago, voters didn't even know that they were walking the MST. I remember clearly that the Blue Ridge Parkway won the "best hiking trail" category. Of course, hiking voters meant the MST, they just didn't know they were walking it.

See the article I wrote in 2007 for the Mountain Xpress. Ironically, I contributed to the Mountain Xpress Outdoor column for several years but the magazine decided to drop the Outdoor column at the end of 2010.

The Mountain Xpress also had a box on the MST that I'm reproducing here:

How Far Can You Go?

The almost-complete, 1,000-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail - North Carolina's longest marked footpath--connects Clingman's Dome (sic) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks.

OK, so there isn't an apostrophe in Clingmans, but I'm delighted anyway.

So come out with CMC and walk the MST. We're number one.

PS Diamond Brand Outdoors won the best Outdoor-Gear Shop category. They are a great supporter of CMC. Congratulations to them, as well!

Do volunteers get sick days?

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 12, 2014 05:10 PM
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charliesbunionA.jpgI'm not supposed to be at home, writing this blog post. I was meant to be on the trail, leading a Friends of the Smokies hike to Charlies Bunion today.

I had made my sandwich--peanut butter and peach slices--, cut up an apple and took some trail mix. I even had a package of dark chocolate to offer my hikers. Water, map and knee bandage, I was ready.

At about 8 pm, or so, I started getting queasy. That was followed by violent vomiting. I don't vomit very often, so I wondered what I had eaten, or was it something worse?

About an hour later, Lenny, my husband, had the same problem. In a way, I felt better that he was vomiting as well and blamed it on our shrimp dinner. I had bought the shrimp at a reputable natural food store. Let's just say that I was glad that we have two bathrooms.

By 10:30 pm, it was obvious that I wasn't going anywhere the next day. I called Holly D., NC Director of FOTS and explained that she would have to step in. To make matters worse, Anna Lee Z., the new NC outreach communications person, would be leading her first hike by herself. We scouted the hike together a couple of weeks ago, and I know that she did a great job but, still, it must have been an anxious time. See the picture above during happier times.

In addition to leading the hike, I had scheduled a bunch of engagements that would cross a personal organizer's eyes:

*provide a shuttle to three Carolina Mountain Club members,

*give Anna Lee some material to pass on to Brent, now working in the Tennessee,

*meet Lori at Newfound Gap, one of two directors of the Smokies 900M, and return a couple of heavy boxes.

All of those meetings had to be unraveled or dealt with, along with the hike.

I've been involved with the Classic Hikes of the Smokies since 2010. I've never missed a hike, scouting a hike or a meeting. This is one of my several "day jobs", now that I no longer have to punch a clock. I schedule everything around these commitments, obviously everything but getting sick.

So I ask: Do volunteers get sick days? And what do I do with an old peanut butter sandwich?

PS I called the Asheville Health Department and reported the incident. They took it seriously.

Happy Belated Birthday to Smokey the Bear

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 11, 2014 08:20 AM
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Happy 70th birthday, Smokey the Bear, one of the most recognizable characters in American history. On August 9, 1944, the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign published the very first Smokey Bear poster.

Who remembers "Only you can prevent forest fires". Of course, when I was growing up, I had never been in a real forest, just a city park. I just thought that they were referring to people putting out their cigarettes before they threw them away.

Note that Smokey the Bear has an "e" in it. Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn't. The Smoky Mountains refers to the blue haze or smoke. I always associate Smokey the Bear with the U.S. Forest Service.

A little history

The ad campaign came about as a result of World War II. Thinking that wildfires could be used as a weapon, the Japanese military in 1942 began making attempts at starting wildfires along the coastal forests of southwest Oregon.

Between November of 1944 and April of 1945 the Japanese began a campaign of launching more than 9000 "fusen bakudan", or fire balloons, into the jet stream. The balloons were equipped with a 15 kilogram antipersonnel bomb and two incendiary devices, which were designed to explode upon impact. It's estimated that 300 to 1000 of the balloons made it to the United States, including as far inland as Iowa and Michigan.

According to a 2009 report by the Ad Council, Smokey Bear and his message are recognized by 95% of adults and 77% of children.

Friends of the MST Board Meeting - A few gems

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 08, 2014 09:35 PM
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20140808FMSTmeeting 004A.jpgMove over Wilbur and Orville. You've had a good run with "First in flight" but now North Carolina will be known as the Great Trails State.

That was one of several exciting developments at the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail Board meeting today. Kate Dixon, Executive Director of Friends of the MST talked about a coalition of three trails, the North Carolina Trails Coalition, in or passing through our state.

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail, of course, is one trail, going from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 1,000 miles through North Carolina to the Outer Banks. The Carolina Thread Trail, based in Charlotte, is the second. A 2,900 mile project, the East Coast Greenway, is slated to go from Maine to Key West - an ambitious undertaking.

I like to think about trails in terms of hiking or biking. But it's more than that. These trails connect places and pass through or close to where more than half of the NC population lives. Trails improve the economy and offer jobs. At its simplest, let's think about the number of visitors who discover the white circles on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The meeting hosted two guests, Brad Ives, Assistant Secretary of NC DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and Mike Murphy, Director of the Division of Parks and Recreation.

Murphy, on the job just 14 days, has already seen that people are passionate about our state parks. But with the reality of budget cuts, there has to be additional ways to generate revenues. Yep, the national parks have learned a while back that they need friends.

Another exciting development. The NC legislature has directed a study of road signage for state parks, including the MST. Most of our state parks have at least one brown sign on the highway, directing visitors.

Not so with the MST. If you don't know where to go on the MST, you won't learn about it driving around. At the end of this blog post, for your amusement, I'll print the actual signage study law. We were all pretty excited at the potential of having the general public learn about the MST, but we have to remember that it's just a study now.

Who are the people in the photo above? From left to right, Jerry Barker, president of the Friends of the MST Board, Kate Dixon, E.D. of Friends of the MST, Mike Murphy, Director of State Parks and Brad Ives, Assistant Secretary of NC DENR. We should know who makes all those decisions about our North Carolina parks.

OK... Driving to Raleigh yesterday wasn't that exciting and driving home was even slower, but the meeting was very interesting.


(a) The Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the State Parks and Recreation Division of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Commerce, and Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, shall study the use of highway signage as a means of improving the North Carolina residents' and tourists' awareness of State parks, including historic and cultural sites as well as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The study shall include an examination of at least all of the following:  
(1) Whether signs currently located on or near highways in this State are sufficient in number, location, and size and presentation to make travelers on the highways of this State aware of the existence and location of all State parks, including historic and cultural sites as well as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
(2) Whether signs currently located on or near highways in this State adequately inform travelers that portions of the roads they travel on are part of the current route of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  
(3) What measures could be taken to improve the efficacy of highway signage in achieving the goals described in subdivisions (1) and (2) of this subsection.  
(4) What the costs and benefits of implementing the measures described in subdivision (3) of this subsection would be.  
SECTION 34.15.(b) No later than April 1, 2015, the Department of Transportation shall report the results of the study required by this section to the chairs of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee and to the Fiscal Research Division.

FR 816 in Pisgah National Forest closed from Sept. 2

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 06, 2014 07:40 PM
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Plan your hikes ahead of time.

The U.S. Forest Service Pisgah Ranger District announced that the Black Balsam Road (FDR 816) and Black Balsam Trailhead resurfacing project will begin Sept. 2. The road and trailhead will be closed until early October.

"We've received a number of complaints regarding the condition of the road. This project will address the numerous potholes and greatly improve visitor experience," said Ranger Ibarguen. "To avoid the highest use times and to be able to meet the requirement of resurfacing the road during warm weather, we are implementing the project just after the Labor Day weekend and before the leaf season begins."

The road is located off the Blue Ridge Parkway near mile marker 420 just west of Graveyard Fields. It accesses the Black Balsam Trailhead, a major access point for the Art Loeb Trail, Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Shining Rock Wilderness and Sam's Knob. Although motorized access to the trailhead will be closed, the trails will remain open.

Questions about the project can be directed to the Pisgah Ranger District at 828-877-3265. The Forest Service will issue a news alert when the road is reopened and post the alert at

Is the WNC Nature Center considered Nature?

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 04, 2014 07:50 PM

20140803IsaWNCnaturecenter3A.jpgThe last post about my granddaughters for a while.

Yesterday three generations of Bernsteins went on a Carolina Mountain Club to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. I wish someone had taken a picture of them. But I took care of Isa, not quite five years old, who wasn't ready for an 8.5-mile hike.

We went to the WNC Nature Center, a local Asheville zoo. It's the perfect family place for the young child. They specialize in Southern Appalachian animals, such as playful river otters, elusive red foxes and coyotes. And of course, there are farm animals to pet. A pretty interesting place for a pre-kindergardner.

A couple of things differentiates the WNC Nature Center from a national or state park. I'm not talking about the size. First, I noted advertisements of all kinds for donors. Look at the top picture. On the bottom left is an ad for the Yellow Pages. You couldn't do that in a park. I've never even seen a face cut-out like that in a park.

Donors get to name a bench or rock. It seems like every place that could be named has the potential of being named. I wonder if donors give more if they can get public recognition. Every Friends group in a national park has to have a donor recognition plan, approved by someone in the park service. You can't just name everything is sight. So your donors have to care about the resource such as the park, not the recognition.

The Nature Center also has a slide--for kids as well as for otters. Isa must have slid down over 30 times: when we got there, in the middle of our visit and before we left. Several adults slid down as well.

20140803IsaWNCnaturecenter2A.jpgBut nothing could beat the rope jungle gym. Isa went up and down several times, in different ways. I watched her without ever saying "Be careful", a meaningless phrase anyway meant to quiet down the adult.

You won't find a playground in a national park, probably not in a state park. Is that keeping families away from parks that are meant to protect resources? We walked the Trillium Trail, a 0.75-mile trail that was "nature" but we were the only ones on the trail. Everyone else was walking on the paved trail.

So I ask the question. When statistics are collected about "nature-deficit" problems and children not being connected to nature, what do they consider nature?

Rum or Beer - Hiking with Children

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Aug 02, 2014 05:39 PM
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20140802Bentcreek0.JPGHow do you encourage kids to go hiking? This seems to be almost a national obsession. Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv may have started a discussion but has it gotten more children in the woods?

Today, I took my two granddaughters on a four-mile hike from Bent Creek to the NC Arboretum in Asheville. Hannah is eleven and a enthusiastic hiker. Isa is four and a half and a real trooper. The four miles might have pushed most adults I saw at the Arboretum but it didn't push Isa.

20140802isaatbentcreek.JPGWe started at Hard Times Road parking area and walked into the arboretum. We shared the trail with lots of bikers and runners, but "stay to the right to be polite" got us lots of praise

We wandered up the Carolina Mountain Trail and eventually got to the Education Center. After a first lunch, we walked to the Exhibit Center but they were showing paintings, not that interesting to children.

Back to the Education Center and down the trail, where I felt that a long song was needed. So I started with:

100 bottles of beer on the wall, 100 bottles of beer

If one of the bottles should happen to fall, 99 bottles of beer on the wall.

But I was corrected. It seems that the song has been updated to:

100 bottles of rum on the wall, 100 bottles of rum

Take one down and pass it around, 99 bottles of rum on the wall.

That got both girls back in record time.

I see little enthusiasm from adults who are dragging kids on the trail. They don't carry food or water. Many girls end up wearing flip-flops. I wonder if Richard Louv discusses actual trail fun and activities. And what songs does he recommend?

Hemphill Bald in the Smokies - Summer Hike

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 30, 2014 01:20 PM
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2014-07-30GRSMHemphillbaldBethKimme 008A.jpgWe have to be grateful for every trail we can access in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With extreme budget cuts, some park facilities were closed last year.

But this year, Heintooga Road is open.  I didn't waste time in getting up to Hemphill Bald, the premier hike from Polls Gap to the bald in Cataloochee Ranch.

2014-07-30GRSMHemphillbald 005A.jpgToday, Beth and her friend, Kim, came with me. It was a new trail to Kim, who lives in Birmingham, AL, and comes up to Western North Carolina occasionally.

Hemphill Bald is at the edge of the park. On the left, the park extends down to the Cataloochee Valley. Private land starts on the right; sometimes an old wooden fence barely stands; it's obvious that property owners are not that concerned about park hikers trespassing.

The elk was a surprise to all of us. I had heard that elk have now migrated from the Cataloochee Valley to Heintooga Road but I never expected to see one munching happily just off the trail. OK, I'm not sure how happy she was. No antlers so I'm assuming it was a "she".

Up and down, up and down and we got to our lunch spot at the top of Cataloochee Ranch. The ranch owners had the foresight to put 250 acres of their land in a conservation easement. They also built a couple of picnic tables and benches for hikers.

We walked back at full speed. About a mile from the trailhead, we met a happy hiker who proudly told us he was 85 years old. He was bare chested and carried a full daypack. "I'm 85 years old. Any day that I wake up is a good day." What a wonderful attitude.

Once back on Heintooga Road, we saw a deer walking the road.20120512BLRI-Masonicmarker18A.jpg We stopped at the Masonic Marker on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The road is on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail Smokies route;if you're walking the trail, you should take the short diversion. If you've never stopped at the masonic marker, you need to come on the Carolina Mountain Club hike on Sunday September 21. Put it on your calendar.

LifeStraw to treat water on the trail

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 28, 2014 03:55 PM

CMCPisgahlifestraw04A.jpgClean potable water is a must in the woods. On a dayhike, I just take two quarts of water from my tap at home. But on a backpack, I need a water treatment system.

Over the years, I've used various water pumps which got lighter and lighter as time went on. Then I moved to streripens but I never felt comfortable that I was using it right.

On short backpacks or long dayhikes, nothing is lighter or more idiot-proof than iodine tablets; I keep them in my first aid kit. But you can't use iodine tablets indefinitely. They're not recommended for the length of the A.T.

CMCPisgahlifestraw03A.jpgAlong comes LifeStraw, a personal water filter which is supposed to provide a minimum of 1000 litres of clean drinking water. You put the heavy plastic straw device in your water bottle and drink. According to the information on the box and website, it contains no chemicals.

So how does it work? There's a mesh at the bottom of the straw that does the work, I guess. I perused the website far more than I should have and found no technical explanation. Here's what it says:

LifeStraw® Go is a lightweight, reusable water bottle that transforms microbiologically contaminated water into safe drinking water.

But the Swiss company, Vestergaard, has provided Lifestraws in various incarnations to many disaster areas.

It's light, inexpensive -$19.99 - and idiot-proof. Just use it as a straw. To clean the filter, just blow out. If Lifestraws can be used in malaria-infested waters, it can be used in the Southern Appalachians. It probably will show up in every hiker's Christmas stocking.

Reflections on our Western National Park Trip

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 26, 2014 02:15 PM
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20140524HOSP-superiorbaths31A.jpgI've been back for almost three weeks from our epic road trip out west. Lenny and I took about six weeks to drive from Asheville to San Francisco and then spent a week at Family Nature Summit in the Monterey area. Life has certainly taken over since I got back so I'd like to reflect on what I saw and learned.

The main focus of our trip was to visit smaller national park units. And we were not disappointed. Every national park had an interesting slant on American life and history. We tried to get on as many ranger tours as possible and stayed in the park lodges.

It was a pleasure to visit every single western national parks. For the most park, the resources were just fine. Park rangers were enthusiastic,  knowledgeable and eager to share their knowledge. Yes, the budget shortfall was mentioned, especially when it came time to explain shorter hours or fewer ranger tours.

You've probably heard of Arches, Canyonlands and Capital Reef National Park, all in Utah. But what about the Hubbell Trading Post in Arizona? Or Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico? Even Manzanar National Historic Site, which remembers the World War II Japanese-American internment, might be considered obscure.

Yet, these are the parks that deserve our attention. The rangers and volunteers in back of the desk were so happy to see us and spend time answering our questions. They were not overwhelmed by visitors. I read up on the parks before we went but I could have done more preparation.

I can tell you that I'll remember the history of Hot Springs, AK-- see the picture above--for a long time.

20140605NAVA-Betatakinruins20A.jpgThe pueblos of Navajo National Monument --see the photo to the left--and Mesa Verde, CO were amazing.

But I can't say that there was one park that I was sorry to visit or one park that wasn't worth my time. I could have been on the road another month and seen more park units. I blogged about the parks. Just look for my blog posts in May and June.

Will I drive out west again? Probably not, because there are too many parks and not enough time. But now, I want to do the same trip to the upper midwest--Voyageur, Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale.

But first, I have to finish my Southeast national parks project. I still have to visit 16 parks, including the Jazz museum in New Orleans and Abraham Lincoln's birthplace in Kentucky.

So go out and see your national parks.

Charlies Bunion in the Smokies - Always different

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 23, 2014 07:05 AM
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charliesbunionA.jpgThe day started wet and foggy as I drove to Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was there to scout a hike to Charlies Bunion on the Appalachian Trail for Friends of the Smokies. I've done this hike so many times. The first time was when I hiked the A.T. this section in 1997 but it's always different.

Yesterday, I was on the trail with Brent, who is finishing his stint with Americorps and will become Marketing Director for Friends. Anna Lee Z. will be working full-time with Holly D. in the North Carolina office. So she'll be co-leading the monthly hikes.

The A.T. heading north toward Charlies Bunion is green and dark. The few views we could have had on the way were socked in by fog. We passed and were passed by hikers going up to the Bunion, to Mt. Le Conte and coming down from Le Conte. For the first section, until the Boulevard Trail, it was the same trail that I did last week for the Margaret Stevenson hike.

icewaterprivyA.jpgWe stopped at Icewater Springs Shelter. The park has put in a new compostable privy, which is also wheel-chair accessible. This beauty of a privy was funded by Friends of the Smokies. After passing the piped spring for which the shelter is named, we went down, down, down and finally to the intersection: Charlies Bunion to the left, the A.T. to the right. The new sign for the Bunion had an apostrophe, i.e. Charlie's Bunion. Who put that apostrophe in? I worry about things like that.

turkscaplily.JPGThe Bunion area was busy with a teenage group, a church group and several families. But we didn't have to wait our turn to climb the Bunion. See the picture above.

On the way back, we turned right to see the Jump-Off. A new sign directs hikers to the short trail to Mt. Kephart (no view) and the Jump-Off. On better viewing days, you can see Charlies Bunion from here.

A great hike. Friends of the Smokies will be leading this hike on Tuesday August 12. Call the Friends Office at 828-452-0720 to register and come on out.

Walking Distance - A book review

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 19, 2014 11:35 AM
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Walking Distance (Cover).jpgWalking Distance: Extraordinary hikes for ordinary people is my dream book. Written by Robert Manning, a professor at the University of Vermont, and Martha Manning, a working artist, the book offers 30 long distance walks that anyone can do.

I first turned to the Cotswold Way, a 100 miles through southern England. As the Mannings describe, the trail is quintessential England - thatched roof cottages, prosperous villages, historic churches, and pastoral valleys. They walked from Bath, a major historic town, and headed north while I walked from Chipping Campden south. This way, I could spend a couple of days exploring Bath after the hike. You stay in bed and breakfasts or small hotels, never needing to camp. Beyond you dayhiking gear, you just bring your toothbrush and couple of changes of underwear.

The book is meant to wet your appetite for the walks. There's enough detail so you can figure out if you must backpack, stay in huts or in town. It's not a guidebook. How could you write a guidebook for 30 long distance hikes? Each long distance hike includes a map to orient youself and a box on further reading.

The authors did the Overland Track, in Tasmania, Australia, differently than we did. They went with a group that planned on staying in huts. We went independently and carried a tent since there was no guarantee that we would find a place in a hut. But we all experienced the same Cradle Mountain and glacier lakes. Wallabies greeted us at every hut. Yellow-tailed black cockatoos and honeyeaters were distinctively Australians, as Australian as most of the hikers we met.

I next looked at Cinque Terre on the West coast of Italy. Lenny and I are planning to go next year but I had yet to do any research. I learned that the main trail linking the five towns is a dayhike of 11 miles. There's a network of trails that wander up and down with good bus service to trailheads. You can even take a bus uphill and walk downhill, which really got Lenny's attention.

It's amazing how many of these hikes I've done. But Walking Distance is a dream book, so I flipped to my dream hikes. The Superior Hiking Trail in the North Woods of Minnesota has always intrigued me. Just because the trail borders Lake Superior doesn't mean it's flat; most of the trail in the Sawtooth Mountains overlooking the lake. The area has a reputation for biting insects but otherwise sounds great.

One quibble. The book should have said when the authors did the hikes. Obviously, these hikes were done over a number of years, and facilities change.

Forget the Sears catalog. Walking Distance (University of Oregon Press, $35) is the real dream book.   

Margaret Stevenson - Happy 102nd birthday

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 17, 2014 01:55 PM
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MSBirthdaygroupA.jpgYesterday 68 hikers celebrated Margaret Stevenson's birthday at LeConte Lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.MSbirthday2014meA.jpg She would have been 102 years old.

Margaret Stevenson was a legend to Smokies hikers. She and her husband retired to Maryville, TN. She started hiking in the park; some say she had a hiking group for every day of the week, except Sunday. By many accounts, she hiked up to Mt. Le Conte 718 times, the last when she was in her 80s. She was the first woman to finish all the trails in the Smokies in 1976.

Her Wednesday group turned into the Margaret Stevenson hiking club, an informal group that offer several hikes every Wednesday. On some days, they hike over 20 miles; they move.

MSbirthday2014 03rugelsragwortA.jpgOn her birthday celebration, hikers get up to the lodge on their own; they just have to be at the lodge by noon. Beth and I chose to walk up Boulevard Trail and come down Alum Cave.

Beth took an incredible picture of me in the rays of fog and sun. She said that I looked like a ghost on the trail.

We were on the trail by 7 am; we had stayed in Gatlinburg, a great luxury. On the Boulevard Trail, we saw a bunch of Rugel's Ragwort. It's an ugly but rare flower, found mostly in the higher elevations in the Smokies.

MSbirthday2014 12LodgeA.jpgBeth and I arrived about 11:30 and we got our picture taken in front of the dining room.

At precisely noon, we all gathered around Ellie D., who spoke affectionally about Margaret. She was always cheerful and remembered everyone's name.

Margaret passed on her hiking passion to others. Pieces of birthday cake were passed around. Then we gathered for a group picture. See the top photo.

"I love to see all those fit people," Beth said.

We had come up the mountain on one of five different trails. And we went back down, "like water down the mountain", to quote Lori.

Thanks to Lori and Ellen for organizing this event. See you on the trail soon.

Time for Summer Camp

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 14, 2014 06:10 AM

Eaglesnestcamp05A.jpgHannah, my granddaughter, is finally starting three weeks of overnight camp at Eagle's Nest.

She and I spent a week ironing on name labels. With the first wearing, it was obvious that iron-on labels don't work. We then relabeled all her clothes with a black laundry marker. In between, we took several trips to Target for toilet articles, Malaprop's for books and a sporting goods store for a bathing suit.

She helped me hunt down a new sign on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.MSTWalkerKnobOVHannahA.jpg Only a few feet into the trail, she found a whole colony of butterflies.

Finally, we packed everything in a huge footlocker that had been sitting in the car trunk from before our Western trip. Why, you may ask? Because an empty foot locker weighs 26 lbs. There was no way she and I were going to lift a full or even empty footlocker into the car.

We also worked on her camp schedule. Unlike most camps where the whole bunk goes to the same activity -- first period is art, second period is swimming.... Here the camper chooses what she's going to do during the day. I encouraged Hannah to pick out activities that she wasn't going to be able to do otherwise. She chose backpacking at my suggestion. Metalworking and horse riding were also on her list.

I tossed and turned all night, worrying about how I was going to get Hannah's footlocker to her bunk. I don't want you to think that she was super excited but she woke up early and was dressed by 6:30 am. After popping her toothbrush and toothpaste into the trunk, we were on our way to camp in Brevard.

We weren't the only eager family. When we got there, we idled in a line of cars waiting to get in and park. Older campers and staff members wearing gray T-shirts were everywhere, greeting campers and directing us to check in. Best of all, strong, enthusiastic young women and men unloaded Hannah's footlocker and moved it to her bunk.

Eaglesnestcamp02A.jpgWe started the check-in process. It reminded me of Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant. When Arlo goes off to the induction station, he says that  
Where you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected.

Well, she wasn't injected or infected. First, she got her bunk number. The next line was for me to put money into her canteen fund. I told her clearly that it was for emergency supplies like toothpaste, not for souvenirs.

The health check-up took the longest time. I thought that they would take her temperature to make sure that she wasn't sick and infecting anyone. Instead, they were most concerned about lice.  I took a picture of her being checked but she made me promise not to publish it.

More health concerns as they asked yet again about medication, this on top of a multi page form that her parents and pediatrician had to fill out. She placed her trumpet into the air-conditioned music room. We were now ready to go to her bunk and meet her counselors.

The literature told the families to let go.

To quote the latest email from the camp, "... know that it can be difficult for both of you." One of the mothers told her daughter "I don't know if I can let you stay. I'm going to miss you so much."

I took a couple of pictures of Hannah with her counselors. Then she told me to go. My last words to her were "write home."

Before I left her cabin, I peeked at the bathroom - two showers, two toilets, and two sinks. Yep, same as my camp cabin, years and years ago.

Friends of the Smokies Greenbriar Trip - Up Cove Mountain

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Jul 11, 2014 07:55 AM
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FOTS201407 022covemtgroupA.jpgSecond day of the Friends of the Smokies Greenbriar Trip.

Some Friends members had never been on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I'm thrilled that this overnight got them "over the mountain".

We split into two groups. Brent, of the North Carolina Friends office, led hikers to Albright Grove, a  moderate hike. I took nine strong people up to Cove Mountain.

We started on the trail to Laurel Falls, a classic destination. In the middle of the day, it's packed because the trail is short, easy and paved. We got there at about 8:30 am and there were people already.

After the falls, we continued up the Laurel Falls Trail to its intersection with Little Greenbriar Gap Trail and up to Cove Mountain. The fire tower is now an air quality monitering station; there's not much view from its base. I asked the hikers to pose in a funky pose. See the top photo for the results.

FOTS201407 020mushroomA.jpgThere was no sign for Cove Mountain Trail and I led the group back to the intersection - wrong!

We did almost two extra miles to go back to the top. No one really complained; no one had been so exhausted by the climb that they were spent. We passed that huge mushroom twice.

We took a smooth unmarked trail that turned out to be Cove Mountain Trail. This boundary trail had a few signs of civilization including a road to a housing development and a huge house right on the left side of the trail. They talk about boundary buffers but the park has to end someplace. Here it ends on the left side, going down, of the trail.

FOTSsugarlands-cataractfalls13A.jpgWe reached Cataract Falls at about 3:30 pm. The falls are thin and drippy at this time of the year. After I drove the drivers back to Laurel Falls, we scattered and promised to get back together soon.

The next Friends of the Smokies hike will be on August 12. We'll be hiking to Charlies Bunion. Call 828.452.0720 to sign up.

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