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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

Pioneering on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 21, 2014 10:55 AM

20140420MSTheintoogascout-treedesign17A.jpgSometimes you don't need to get on a plane and go to an exotic place to be a pioneer.

Sometimes you just need to get on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail Across North Carolina.

A while back I wrote trail instructions for Friends of the MST from Clingmans Dome, the western end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Scott Creek Overlook (MP 448.4) on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had walked the Smokies sections, some trails several times. But when I did the whole MST, I needed to walk the Parkway from Heintooga Road.

20140420MSTheintoogascout-westernblaze28A.jpgThere's been a lot of work by Carolina Mountain Club since then. The Parkway finally opened this year and it was time to see what exactly was walkable on trail east of Heintooga Rd.

As Julia Childs said, "Il faut mettre les mains a la pate" (you have to put your hands on the dough) or the English sentiment, "Enough reading and staring at maps. Get out on the trail".

20140420MSTheintoogascout-ontrail21A.jpgLenny and I placed one car at Scott Creek Overlook and drove to Heintooga Road. We took the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) road and passed the first trail marker on the western end of the MST. (There are no MST blazes in the Smokies.)

Soon the trail got off the dirt road and into the woods. A perfect trail, worthy of CMC reputation. "This was going to be easy peasy," I thought as we came down to Soco Gap.

We crossed US 19 and went up another section of trail, beautifully blazed. CMC had even put a bench near a stream where we enjoyed our lunch. The trail climbed on its way to Waterrock Knob. I looked around for any scene that might be worthy of the FMST photo contest, later on this year. See the top picture of  the inside of a tree.

If this story was a movie, it would be time to change the background music to a more mysterious tune. MST circles stopped abruptly and we followed blue flags on trees and bushes.

20140420MSTheintoogascout -hoist23A.jpg"This is where they stopped putting up the white circles," we said. "Let's just follow the blue ribbons."

The trail turned into a thin line and sometimes we had to scramble over and under trees but that was OK. We knew that this section wasn't officially open.

We  found the maintenance equipment, a hoist, between two trees, left by the CMC crew for the next work day. And then the blue flags stopped. That became more of a dilemma.

Where in the "nonexistent blazes," were we?

We could just persevere east with our compass, drop down to the Parkway or turn around. We decided on the last option. Getting lost was never a concern; it was only 1:30 pm. We had hours of daylight.

Soon we saw a clear shot to the Parkway and an access trail down. The maintainers always clear an access trail from the Parkway to wherever they're working. We "slid down" to the road and started a hot five mile trek back to Heintooga Road. (Don't try that yourself! OK?)

On the way back to Scott Creek, we drove to Waterrock Knob. No sign of a trail, either west or east of the visitor center.

So here's the bottom line for right now. From Heintooga Road, you have a delightful couple of miles to Soco Gap. Then you walk the Parkway until you enter the woods at Scott Creek.

Poison Ivy - First time this season

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 19, 2014 08:25 AM
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Spring has sprung. How do I know?

I got my first case of poison ivy.

poisonivydotorg.jpgSo it doesn't rhyme but it's still true.

Every year, I get caught out and get my first case of poison ivy in early spring. I don't yet have my "poison ivy" antenna on.

Wham! A few days later, I notice a rash and look at it blankly. This time, the rash is on my stomach.

What could that possibly be? Was it something I ate? Maybe I picked up bedbugs someplace. But then I noticed the same rash on my wrist and even the underside of my chin. It's poison ivy, picked up on one of the hikes I did a few days ago.

You can get poison ivy all year round in the eastern United States. In the winter, thick vines wrap themselves around large trees. If you touch the vines, tag, you got it. For this case of poison ivy, I assume that I leaned against a tree with just a thin T-shirt and was infected that way.

The rest of the year, you need to watch out for  three-leaved vine on the ground, wrapped around other flowers, bushes and trees. In the Southern Appalachians, it's on steroid. Hence, the saying,

Leaves of three, let it be!

You can call it an invasive nuisance plant but it's our invasive, not an exotic. It likes disturbed ground so you'll see on the side of trails but not deep in the woods. Usually, it doesn't thrive above 4,000 to 5,000 feet, depending on what source you read.

After a hike, I wash myself with brown laundry soap, like Fels Naptha soap. Way back, the brown bar was sold in every grocery store but now, it's not that easy to find. I buy it at Ace Hardware.

I didn't wash with it this time because I wasn't tuned in to poison ivy this season yet.

There are all sorts of remedies for the itch. Check out this website where I got the picture above. Mostly it's best to avoid it and wash with brown soap, as a preventive measure, before you see it on your skin.

Once I get it, I just put up with it, try not to scratch and make sure I have brown soap for the next hike.

When you're sleeping,

Poison ivy comes a creeping, all around...

The people behind the trails in the Smokies

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 16, 2014 06:55 AM
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20140414FOTSAlbrightgrove-23A.jpgAfter yesterday's long hike on the Old Settlers Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I stayed in Gatlinburg and met Brent from Friends of the Smokies.

On Monday, we scouted Albright Grove, one of the three hikes that will be offered on the Greenbrier overnight in July.

Lenny and I had scouted this hike in January. We discovered lots of blowdowns that obstructed the trail. We shimmed over and under large trees. We were able to negotiate the blowdowns because it was just the two of us.20140414FOTSAlbrightgrove-me02A.jpg But a group would take all day to pass through Albright Loop. I emailed the higher-ups in the park that schedule trail maintenance work.

When we got up to Albright Loop, lo and behold, all the blowdowns had been dealt with. Look at the photo above of Brent with one of the many cut trees. We both thanked the Park Service.

On Albright Loop, we also found a pouch at the bottom of a standing tree. It turned out to contain a tiny notebook with stamps on each page, probably from geocaching. The park doesn't allow geocaching; they feel that it's just like leaving trash. Too bad that the person lost his or her notebook, full of accomplishments.

20140414FOTSAlbrightgrove-maintainergmathis26A.jpgWe headed down the trail. At the intersection with Gabes Mountain Trail, two trail maintenance workers were in a Park Service truck. I told them how happy I was that the blowdowns had been cut. One of the guys smiled.

"Were you the guys who worked on that?" I asked.

Yes, they were. Brent and I thanked them personally. I took a picture of G. Mathis. It's one thing to acknowledge the "Park Service" for great trail maintenance; it's another to thank the individuals who actually cut the trees.

Great job. Thanks, guys.

A Long and Fascinating Hike on the Old Settlers Trail

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 15, 2014 10:55 AM
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I pride myself in being a plodder.

I don't walk fast but I can keep on going. And nowhere is this truer than on the Old Settlers Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The trail takes you from the Maddron Bald trail, off US 321 in Tennessee to Greenbriar. It undulates but has no major climbs, just lots of small ups and downs. As the name implies, the trail still has chimneys, house foundations and lots of walls--see above-- that remain from settlers who lived here before the area became a park.

Yellowtrillium20140413A.jpgThe trail crosses many streams. Many are step-overs and for others, you just need to plunk your feet in the water. But all that water means that flowers had come into their own: hepatica, star chickweed, lots of violets and the star, yellow trillium--photo on right.

On Sunday, a hot April day, I went with Carolina Mountain Club on the Old Settlers Trail hike, advertised as 17.1 miles and 3,300 feet.20140413OldSettlerstrailcreekA.jpg The day was made more challenging in a couple of ways.

We left Asheville at 7:30 am in a very efficient manner, drove to the Tennessee side of the park, set up a shuttle and started the hike at 10 am. We climbed up Maddron Bald Trail for a little while to pick the Old Settlers Trail.

The temperature got over 80 degrees and stayed there. Because it's only April, the trees hadn't leafed out and there was little shade. Carroll, our leader, paced the hike well. Lots of little breaks for water and snacks helped to gather the hikers back after they had scattered, each at their own pace.

But no matter how you analyze it, it was a long hike. Ideally we should have been at the trailhead at 7 am. I could have used another couple of hours to investigate the cabin and cemetery that I just blew past.

No beers at trailheads

I got to the cars at 6:30 pm and several hikers were already relaxing with beers from their coolers. And I learned another thing about park management.

A ranger was patrolling the Ramseys Cascade road and stopped when he saw us lounging around.

"Pour out those beers," he said "and put the bottles away." I went over to his truck and introduced us as CMC.

"We just walked from Maddron Bald and we're waiting for the rest of our group," I said.

"So how come you don't know about the alcohol rules?" he said.

All I was drinking was water but I had a feeling I was answering for the whole group because I was the one who went over to him. It turns out that beer and wine were OK at picnic areas and campgrounds but not anyplace else. No booze at trailheads. OK, got it! I'll pass it on.

Thank you to Carroll for his great leadership. I feel that it's good to push myself. If I ever do this trail again, I'm going to start about two to three hours earlier.

S.A.L.T - Are you ready for the challenge?

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 11, 2014 08:40 AM

saltmap_FIX_postA.jpgSometimes I come late to the party. When it comes to hiking challenges, that's annoying but that's why I spend a lot of time on the web.

A new challenge, the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail, was brought to my attention by my hiking pal, Sharon. It's a 350 to 370 mile loop, using a bunch of trails in, you guessed it, the Southern Appalachians.

Matt Kirk, our resident trail runner, is publicizing the trail and ran it in under ten days. Even he says that most people would take a month.

The loop incorporates the Appalachian Trail, Mountains-to-Sea Trail, trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Foothills, Bartram and others in South Carolina and skims Georgia. Kirk wrote an article about his trek. He also provided a spreadsheet that outlines the main highlights to keep you on the trail.

This loop is not only a challenging hike, up and down an amazing number of mountains and valleys. It's also a logistical challenge. Where do you stay? Where do you resupply?

I find these challenges much more difficult than putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe that's why I do most of my Southern Appalachian hiking in the Smokies, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and Pisgah where maps and trail blazes abound.

Sharon is now hiking the A.T. in Virginia bit by bit in sections. Will she consider the S.A.L.T. loop? Will the trail become the next popular challenge after the A.T. and MST? Who knows? Maybe hikers will come from all over the world to test it out? But first, it needs a trail guide.

Friends of the Smokies Hike up Newton Bald

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 09, 2014 09:15 AM
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Nineteen hikers climbed to Newton Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park yesterday on a Friends of the Smokies hike. They obviously weren't put off by the strenuous label.

2014FOTSNewtonbaldhike-02A.jpgNewton Bald Trail, off Newfound Gap Road, is not a "top of the pops" trail.

It's a quiet trail which links the Road to Mingus Creek Trail and further up to Thomas Divide Trail.

The trail is also on the new (or current) route of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). The picture on top was taken at the intersection of the old MST route and the current one.

FOTS2014Newtonbaldhike07A.jpgAs we all plodded up, we pointed out spring flowers. Halberd-leaved violets, hepatica, trout lilies were in bloom. Trilliums and blood root just displayed their leaves. The trail has several seepages, which attracts flowers.

At the top, I tried to explain the incorrect sign but most folks didn't have much context. They were just happy to be done with the climb and looked forward to a downhill trail.

I have discussed this sign with several park people but they haven't changed the sign yet. This sign hails from a time when the bottom of Mingus Creek Trail was off-limits to visitors because of a shooting range.

But where was the bald? In the local parlance, I pointed out "where the bald used to be". Balds were kept open by grazing or burning. Before the land was part of the park, settlers brought their cattle up to graze on Newton Bald for the summer. But once the park came in and stopped the grazing, the land filled in with trees and rhododendron bushes.

We all traipsed down Mingus Creek Trail, happy to roll downhill. Most of the trail was dry, without flowers. It was a single file trail, so you only talked to the person in front or back.

At the road, Brent took us to Mingus Mill to talk about historic preservation. The mill was closed but we could admire it from the outside.

Thank you all for coming, for climbing, for being such good group hikers. A special thank-you to Brent of Friends of the Smokies who sweeps and encourages the folks in the back of the line. He has a much more challenging job than me at the front of the line.

Plan to come with us to Ramsay Cascades on May 13. Hopefully, the park will have installed a new bridge. Sign up with Brent at 828-452-0720.


My only disappointment was that it was so cool that I wasn't able to show up my new T-shirt with the Friends of the Smokies logo. Maybe next hike.

Is Newton Bald Trail in the Smokies a Strenuous Hike?

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 04, 2014 02:20 PM
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MSTonnewtonbald.JPGSpring has sprung. Join Friends of the Smokies for our April Classic Hike of the Smokies and catch the season's early wildflowers!

Our next hike is Tuesday, April 8th to Newton Bald. This hike is strenuous in difficulty at 10.5 miles round trip with a total elevation gain of 2,800 feet.

Please note that the majority of this elevation gain is realized in the first 5 miles as we climb to the bald. After descending along Mingus Creek, we'll visit historic Mingus Mill and learn about preserving the way of life of the area's 19th century inhabitants.

But what is strenuous?
I find characterizing hikes as easy, moderate, or strenuous one of the most difficult part of leading. Yet everyone expects each hike to have such a rating. In my hiking guides, I resisted labeling hikes this way--and my wise publisher, Milestone Press, was OK with that. Instead, I gave all the numbers I could think of--distance, elevation gain and some idea of the terrain.

The latter can be subjective but you can distinguish between smooth dirt trails or rocky surfaces. Is the trail well maintained like in the Smokies or will you have to go over and under blowdowns? Is the trail well marked, again like in the Smokies, or will you spend time and energy trying to find the trail?

Most Smokies trails are well switched backed so hikers just have to plod along uphill instead of climbing straight up. Ever hiked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire? After hiking in the Northeast for years, I thought that I had died and gone to hiking heaven when I started hiking in the Smokies. Still that doesn't help those who hike in the Park almost exclusively and want to differentiate between hikes and figure out if the hike is too strenuous for them.

When you define strenuous, you need to figure out how much you're willing to get tired and sweat. Do you look at being tired as good or bad? What is your tolerance for exhaustion?   

I saw this definition at
Defining strenuous or vigorous exercise is largely a matter of perception, as it depends on how hard a particular activity feels to you. Someone who is out of shape may find a brisk walk quite strenuous while a marathon runner may not find it the least bit challenging. Your heart rate can tell you how strenuous your body considers an exercise to be. In general, the more strenuous the exercise, the faster your heart will beat.

Most definitions of strenuous I found discuss the health benefits of exercise. It's very clinical but doesn't capture the fresh air, flowers, trees and good friends that walk with you. I exercise at the gym to be fit enough to hike, but I don't hike just for exercise.

So is the Newton Bald/Mingus Creek Trail hike strenuous? Yes, probably. But so what?

The details
Classic Hikes are $10 for Friends members and $35 for non-members, who will receive a complimentary 1-year membership. Members who bring a new friend hike for free. You can pay in advance with credit card over the phone (828-452-0720). Brent can also accept payment on the morning of the hike as cash or check.

Please come prepared for all weather, dress in layers, and bring a pack lunch and plenty of water. Participants can meet in Asheville, Maggie Valley, and Cherokee. Carpool details given upon registration.

Highlands Progressive Hike

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Apr 03, 2014 05:00 AM
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Sometimes a hike is too short for the distance you want to drive. That's the situation with the attractions in Highlands, North Carolina. The area has beautiful walks, each a couple of miles long. So I put a few hikes together both in my book Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains and on the Carolina Mountain Club hike that I'm leading in a couple of weeks.

Highlands is a summer resort town, which attracts weekenders from Atlanta and from all over the South. It's about 80 miles west of Asheville on twisty, narrow roads. Yesterday, I scouted the hiking day with Daisy, another CMC enthusiast.

First Whiteside Mountain--see above. This is the signature hike, located between Cashiers and Higlands. Located in Nantahala National Forest, the hike starts on an old road and climbs for a mile to amazing views. The Forest Service has put in safety railing since the last time I was there. Besides making sure that people don't jump or fall down the mountain, the railing follows the best views and guides you along the path.

A trip up to Sunset Rocks in Highlands is a classic must. Then through the Highlands shopping street to Chiquapin Mountain and Glenn Falls. Conveniently, both short hikes start from the same parking area.

CMChighlandsscout-Glenfalls18A.jpgThe climb up to Chiquapin promises some spring flowers. Glenn Falls offers great views of the falls from several vantage points. Again, the Forest Service put in railings and viewing areas which actually lets the visitor know where the best views are.

Oh, I can't leave out the finale. Ice cream at Sweetreats. Check the CMC schedule and come on the hike.

Porter Creek Trail in the Rain

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 30, 2014 10:55 AM


Always err on the side of "Yes". That's what Patty said on the Porter Creek Trail.

Yesterday, I did just that as I led a Carolina Mountain Club hike on the Porter Creek Trail in the Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

CMC hikes are planned months in advance. I committed to this hike probably in September. But the forecast was not good; it called for 90% chance of rain. That is almost a certainty.

Should I cancel the hike? No. I had several inquiries, but would anyone show up? No point being a leader, unless you have followers? What if it rained all day?

CMCportercreek-group11A.jpgMy analysis was the following.

The morning temperature was about 55 degrees and promised to be over 60. This was a low-altitude hike, in the trees, so we were going to be under cover the whole time. The whole purpose of the hike was to see the famous flowers on the Porter Creek Trail. Just as important, two new hikers were trying out our club. I was not going to disappoint them. At the end, four other people showed up to hike and we were on our way.

We saw a boatload of flowers, including bloodroot, hepatica, fringed phacelia, halberd-leaved violets, purple and white violets and one lonely trout lily. Trillium leaves and buds covered the ground, though no petals yet.

And we weren't the only group on the trail. A family was visiting from Chicago and by golly, they were going to hike. The father took the picture of us above.

CMCportercreek-ownbycem10A.jpgWe showed them the cemetery and historic cabin. They got to  sample our Smokies hospitality and were grateful.

We started the trail in the dry and admired all the artifacts and flowers while going up. By the time we got to the campground, it had started raining. We ate our lunches quickly and enjoyed the downhill in the mud.

Did we get wet? Of course, but so what!! We had erred on the side of "Yes".

It's not about the tacos!

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 28, 2014 03:50 PM
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Chasteen waterfallOn Monday March 31, this coming Monday, Friends of the Smokies invites hikers, supporters of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and just plain eaters to have dinner at The Local Taco.

You can drop in at any time between 4 pm and 9 pm and have dinner and a drink. You can meet the North Carolina staff of Friends of the Smokies (FOTS), find out about our Classic Hikes series and just socialize. A percentage of the restaurants proceeds will go to fund FOTS projects.

Friends of the Smokies exists for one reason-to support Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So the restaurant donation will go to the many projects in the park.

For example, the park project that's near and dear to my heart is Trails Forever program. FOTS created an endowment that will fund major trail construction. Right now, trail crews are working on Chimney Tops.

So come out on Monday evening at The Local Taco at 68 N. Lexington Avenue in Asheville ((828) 575-9667), order something and talk about your experiences in the park.

This will be my first experience at The Local Taco and I always like to try new restaurants. But it's not really about the tacos.

Moving on to the Gulf Islands and the Florida Trail

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 21, 2014 10:50 AM
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As part of my goal of seeing all the national park units in the Southeast, I've reached Gulf Island National Seashore in Pensacola, Florida. It's a long park unit with 12 sections, I think, in Florida and Mississippi. I concentrated on Fort Pickens for history and Naval Live Oaks to see the natural resources.

I spent the whole day going up and down, and across the fort. Fort Pickens was one of many forts, built as the "third system of coastal defense". Fort Monroe, Sumner, Pulaski, Fort Jefferson are just a few. Well, Great Britain never attacked again but these forts all played a part in the Civil War.

Fort Pickens is also one end of the Florida National Scenic Trail, 1,300 miles of trail to Big Cypress National Reserve. The little study I've done tells me that the trail has many of the same attributes as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail with challenging accommodations and changing conditions. In addition, since the trail is so low, it's subject to flooding. There seems to be so many warnings on the web about detours.

GUIS1-Floridatrail35A.jpgYet ... I walked about a mile out from Fort Pickens and a mile back in wonderful sunshine. I crossed a creek with a heron. On a osprey nest, a bird was proudly sitting. Several other ospreys were circling and squawking, probably letting me know that I'm in their territory. Red-winged blackbirds, cardinals and sparrows, maybe savannah sparrows flitted about.

With so much water and open space, you're going to see stuff. I can't dismiss the Florida Trail. I'm certainly not making a commitment but I just joined the Florida Trail Association.

A lot to absorb in Tuskegee, AL

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 18, 2014 05:10 PM
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For a small town in Southern Alabama, Tuskegee evokes a lot of feelings and opinions. For most people, it only means one thing: the Tuskegee experiment.

From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted an experiment to study untreated syphilis in men. Looking back on it, it was a shocking experiment that led to the Institutional Review Board when working with human subjects.

But Tuskegee is also the site for two national park units, which is why I'm here.

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site encompassed almost the whole campus of (now) Tuskegee University. It also includes The Oaks, home of Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 and George Washington Carver museum--see above.

Most of the old buildings on campus were constructed by students. Booker T. Washington believed in teaching practical skills as well as academic subjects. So students made the bricks used in the buildings, did the workworking, and cooked the meals in the school kitchens.

Today, you can wander about the campus and look at the outside of these buildings. A tour of The Oaks is available at set times. Sometimes it takes the ranger a while to get to her tours, something which I haven't usually experienced at other National Park sites. You can only get into Washington's house on a tour, so the 9 am tour visitors waited patiently.

And, yes, you can visit the Legacy Museum to learn more about the Tuskegee experiments.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is only a couple of miles down the road from Tuskegee Institute. The two sites are connected in history.

In 1941, the Army Air Corps looked to expand its reserve of military pilot and contracted with civilian flight school. Since Tuskegee Institute had a good civilian flight school, it was selected as a primary flight school for the army.  At this time, there weren’t any black military flight pilots. Some felt that African-American men weren't suited for the rigor and discipline of flying.

TUAI-PT17-37A.jpg But of course, they proved that black men could fly with distinction. All support personnel, such as mechanics, radio operators and nurses, are considered Tuskegee Airmen.

When I visited the site, yesterday, only one ranger was on duty. He kept his friendly demeanor as he answered visitor questions, opened the auditorium and started the movie, unlocked the door to the control tower and even staffed the bookstore.

One hanger is staffed by a civilian worker who didn't know much. So all the questions were referred to the ranger. The site also has a Skyway Club, the old officers' club, which has been refurbished but is still closed. There just isn't enough staff.

What a shame that this NPS site isn't given the funding to properly interpret the Tuskegee experience! If it sounds like I've complained before (and I have), it's because I'm visiting small historic sites. We can't forget them.

Chattahoochee River in the Rain

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 16, 2014 08:50 PM
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CHAT-island1A.jpgHow to feel really silly? Easy. Just think that you're the only one walking in the pouring rain.

Continuing south from Dahlonega, GA, my next destination was Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area just north of Atlanta. This morning was a complete washout. They were predicting 100% rain and a good chance of thunderstorms. But I'm on a mission to see all the national park units in the Southeast. I was down this far on a wet Sunday. Nothing else to do but continue with my plans.

I'm still questioning what it means to "visit a national park unit". It's somewhere between just getting my passport stamped and hiking all the trails but that's a wide range. I knew that the visitor center was going to be open at 9 am, rain or shine, but any other visitors?

The park is a 48-mile linear series of lands, on both sides of the Chattahoochee River. It was created in 1978 to protect the river and to give Atlantans another place to get outdoors.

I headed to the park headquarters at Island Ford. As soon as I drove into the park, I knew that I was hardly the only one visiting on this cold, wet day. A woman in serious rain gear was pounding in a "orienteering today" sign. Cars with kayaks on their roofs turned off on side roads. At the visitor center, I was not the only vehicle. Silly me!

CHAT-LodgeA.jpgThe visitor center had been the summer home of Samuel D. Hewlett, a prominent attorney from Atlanta. It was built between 1936 and 1941 and sold to the Buckhead Century Club in 1950.

This was, in part, a gambling club but when Georgia changed its gambling laws, the club couldn't make a go of it and sold it to the Atlanta Baptist Assembly for a camp. How's that for a switch in purpose? The building and land was acquired by a conservancy in 1979, which passed it on to the park service.

But that's only the story of Island Ford section. Each section has its own history of how it became a park.

But I could only spend so much time talking to the ranger and looking around the beautiful building. A man, dressed for rain, invited me to orienteer with their group but I declined since they were starting at 11 am. I didn't want to wait around.

I walked about 3 to 4 mostly flat miles by the river. Canada geese weren't bothered by the rain. As I came back, I met orienteers running, walking or ambling with their map and compass.

It was a busy place. I wonder what Chattahoogee is like on a sunny Sunday.

A.T. Trail Days in Dahlonega, GA

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 15, 2014 08:45 PM
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ATDahlonega-me03A.jpgWhy would the organizers of the Dahlonega A.T. Trail Festival invite me to speak about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail? I don't know either but I said yes.

So from Bryson City, I drove through the Nantahala Gorge and the Chattahoochee National Forest through windy mountain roads to Dahlonega. The organizers had given me a room at a lovely bed and breakfast, which I managed to find just before it got pitch dark last night.

A.T. Trail days are now organized up and down the A.T. Dahlonega is the first one going north. The town of 8,000 in the North Georgia mountains must have worked very hard to attract all the crafters, equipment manufacturers, musicians and even authors.

But they didn't seem to attract the thru-hikers that are supposed to be the super stars of these festivals. Thru-hikers are starting earlier and earlier and many must be past Dahlonega by now. Also, as it was explained to me, since it was a beautiful day, there was no incentive to get off the trail.

Never mind. There were plenty of people milling around the square and even a nice audience for my talk.

GeneespyA.jpgOn authors' row, Gene Espy, the second thru-hiker on the A.T., was signing books, with his wife of 60 years at his side. He's now 87 and did his famous hike in 1951. They live in Macon, GA where he was an industrial engineer. No slides, no music, just Gene and a microphone.

molloyjohnnie.JPGMy outdoor writer hero is Johnny Molloy, 53, who's been making a living at writing outdoor books. Johnny must have written over 50 outdoor books. He hikes, bikes, paddles, and camps.

He's not a rich man but loves what he does. He just recently got married and looks so happy. And he's always talking and writing about something new.

Since most of the audience knew about the A.T., it was easy to make comparisons to other trails. They were an eager bunch and it was very enjoyable. How many of these will actually get on a trail, any trail, I'll never know. But I like to think that some will be inspired to get out there.

In Bryson City for an Association meeting

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 14, 2014 09:23 PM
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Today our quarterly Great Smoky Mountains Association meeting was in Bryson City, NC. After a great lunch at Cork and Bean, we moved to the old courthouse for several hours of discussion.

The old courthouse is a stately building, constructed in 1908. It's been empty for many years. But now it's taking on new life as a visitor center, museum and (tah-dah) Smoky Association bookstore.

The Association will outfit a new store on the ground level of the Swain County visitor center. This will give park visitors entering the Smokies at Bryson City a chance to buy maps, books and get some instructions on where to find things.

GSMA201403meeting-06A.jpgUpstairs, Swain County is going to tell their story. Now they're trying to get long-time residents to donate historic artifacts. Someone donated an old log cabin which they've put back together again in the large room on the 2nd floor. It's quite impressive.

The museum is slated to come together and open around Labor Day. People will come just to see the inside of the building. And when they get here, they can buy a book and T-shirt from the Association.

Little Cataloochee with Friends of the Smokies

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 11, 2014 09:10 PM
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What a great day!

After all the bad weather we've had in Western North Carolina Carolina, we had a beautiful, sunny day for our first Friends of the Smokies hike of the year.

I was not the only one who thought so, since over 30 hikers showed up to hike Little Cataloochee Trail. We stopped at every artifact, starting with the Hannah cemetery. See picture above where I managed to take a photo of some of the participants. The others were investigating graves, inscriptions or just catching up with each other after the winter.

We continued on Little Cataloochee Trail, which was the main road when people settled here. Up to the Hannah cabin, a tiny place that may have housed who knows how many family members.

FOTS2014LittleCat-Chapel04A.jpgThe highlight is always the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church with another large cemetery right in front and its rows of Decoration Day tables in back. Holly Demuth, Director of the NC office of Friends of the Smokies, talked about the work of Friends.

"Every good program deserves a commercial", I told the group.

Over 20 new people showed up for this hike. Many had probably "meant to come", but the good weather and maybe a new year's resolution brought them out to actually put their boots on the ground. Our lunch stop and turn-around point was the Cook Cabin.

These monthly hikes are more than just a few hours in the woods for me. It means showing people new areas of the Smokies. Most had been to the Cataloochee Valley, or "big Cataloochee", but had never driven on NC 284 to the entrance to Little Cataloochee. That even included folks that grew up here.

It also means introducing new topics like exotic species, hemlock wooly adelgids, the challenge of keeping the cabins and churches in good conditions and a host of issues that most people think "they" take care of. Who is this "they", if not us the people who own the national parks?

Somehow talking about these challenges in the sunshine makes it more real and enjoyable. Register for the next hike, Tuesday April 8 by contacting Brent via email or 828-452-0720..

No Nature Deficit in Athens, OH

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 09, 2014 05:10 PM
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Athenshikinggroup-06A.jpgOne more day in Athens, OH.

Lenny and I joined the Athens, OH, Sunday morning hiking group with our younger granddaughter, Isa. It's an informal family hiking group, which, surprisingly, attracts hikers without children.

So Lenny, Isa and I arrived at the meeting point, Sells Park, ten minutes before the start time, just like we do with Carolina Mountain Club. Only two women were waiting. Since they didn't have children in tow, we were sure that they weren't part of the group.

Athenshikinggroup-09A.jpgAt exactly ten o'clock, a small army of adults, children and dogs came around the corner, ready to hike.

A newborn girl, seven weeks old, was nestled in her mother's bosom. A couple of rambunctious six-year old boys informed me that "we're going to look for treasures in these caves".

Isa and her four-year old girl friend did their best to keep up with the boys. Two tweens were talking up and down the line. And two dogs chased each other, back and forth, on the trail.

Sells Park is an intown park, off the main shopping street, with lots of trails. Not really wilderness, but neither is Bent Creek in Asheville. According the signs at the trailhead, the land was donated to the Federal Government. But what was the national park service going to do with this small piece of land? Thirty years later, they gave to the city of Athens. The result is a bunch of trails and some intriguing rock formations.

Each Sunday, the group walks for about two hours, mostly in Sells park but it sometimes ventures further. After an hour, the folks with children decided to turn back. The unattached adults sped up. We continued another twenty minutes before we headed back.

No nature deficit disorder here. Maybe most of these kids will go on to more challenging hiking, as they get older.

Wonderful group... OK. I wasn't enamored by the dogs. I was concerned that they would run down the small kids, but I have to get over it. Lenny and I will be back.

Hocking Hills with Children

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 08, 2014 05:15 PM
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Nature deficit disorder... It's the new mantra that you hear all the time. How to attract children to our park? Well, if they're children, they have to be taken to parks and forests by their adults.

We're visiting our son, daughter and granddaughters in Ohio for the weekend.hannahisainhockinghills.jpg Today we all went to Hocking Hills State Park, a well-loved park in Ohio with trails, camping and even a pool. OK, so it's too early to use the pool.

Unfortunately, it was also too early to do any serious hiking because the trails were too icy. We slipped and slid for a while but decided to go cross-country and stay on dirt instead of ice. So did a lot of other visitors who held on to each other and looked very precarious.

Lots  of adults, children and dogs around the visitor center and trailheads. Not too many on the trails. We'll have to go back when it thaws out.

The point is that children, by definition, go where the parents and other adults go. If their adults are enthusiastic about the outdoors, so will children. If the adults are fearful, bored or play with their cell phones, children will be disinterested. It's not the kids' faults.

Tourists bring money to the Smokies Area

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 05, 2014 09:50 PM
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This press release is worthy of being reprinted without any remarks from me.

A new National Park Service (NPS) report shows that 9,685,829 visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2012 spent $741 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 10,959 jobs in the local area.

“Great Smoky Mountains National Park is proud to welcome visitors from across the country and around the world,” said Acting Superintendent Pedro Ramos. “We are delighted to share the story of this place and the experiences it provides for visitors. We appreciate the partnership and support of our neighbors and are glad to be able to give back by helping to sustain local communities.”

National park tourism is a critical economic driver for gateway communities across the nation. Researchers estimate that for every $1 invested by American taxpayers, the National Park Service returns $10 to the U.S. economy.

The peer-reviewed visitor spending analysis was conducted by U.S. Geological Survey economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas and Christopher Huber along with Lynne Koontz for the National Park Service. The report shows $14.7 billion of direct spending by 283 million park visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park. This spending supported 243,000 jobs nationally, with 201,000 jobs found in these gateway communities, and had a cumulative benefit to the U.S. economy of $26.75 billion.

According to the report, most visitor spending supports jobs in restaurants, grocery and convenience stores (39 percent), hotels, motels and B&Bs (27 percent), and other amusement and recreation (20 percent).

To download the report visit

Meeting Sally Jewell, Pedro Ramos and Lamar Alexander

by Danny Bernstein — last modified Mar 03, 2014 05:35 PM
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Senator Lamar Alexander, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Acting Superintendent Pedro Ramos all converged in Townsend, Tennessee to announce plans to build the Joint Curatorial Collection facility in the back of the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center.

I knew I was going to like Ms. Jewell when I heard that she, the superintendent and a few Friends of the Smokies members hiked up Chimney Tops in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hey, how come I wasn't invited?

Here was a Secretary of the Interior who would actually go into the interior. The trail is two miles up and steep. Friends of the Smokies is funding the rehabilitation of the trail under the Trails Forever program. Jewell walked the rehabbed section and the muddy section yet to be worked on.

Superintendent Ramos stressed the love and passion that we have for our national park; yes, it's my national park as well. He claims he's never seen the kind of support that private partnerships, like Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association give to the park in any other national park. "We, the park, can't do it all ourselves."

Sen. Lamar Alexander from Tennessee has been a long time supporter of the Smokies. "Lots of people have supported the idea of the curatorial facility, but Sally Jewell had to make a decision and she decided that we will go ahead with the building."

As he put it, this building will hold the items that people owned: the Walker Sister quilts, Jim Thompson photographs, the chair that FDR sat in when he dedicated the park and Alexander's favorite, the largest collection of stills in the country. Nearly half of the estimated $ 4.3 million cost of the facility has been provided by our park partners along with the donation of the 1.6 acre parcel of land provided by the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center.

GSMAheritagemeeting-jewell07A.jpgSally Jewell said that "Friends groups used to provide the margin of excellence. Now they're providing the margin of survival for parks."

That seemed to be her mantra as she repeated it several times. "I'm your advocate in front of Congress". But she pointed out that "your voices are important. The legislature needs to hear that parks are important to us."

Two questions stood out:

*  A man questioned why the park was considering removing daffodils from the landscape. Yes, daffodils are exotic but they're part of the heritage. When you see daffodils, chances are that there was a home here. Ramos said that maybe we could consider daffodils part of the heritage, like cabins.

* Next question. When is Congress going to pay Swain County for the settlement for the North Shore Road?

Jewell said that she had to recuse herself from talking about the settlement because she had been on the board of National Parks Conservation Association. But Senator Alexander stepped up and said he could talk about it and did.

"The Government owes money to Swain County and I'm going to do my best to see that the Government pays".

So the question is: Where are our two senators from North Carolina on this issue?

GSMAheritagemeeting-dale26A.jpgOn a more amusing note, retired superintendent Dale Ditmanson came and quietly sat in the back. He grew a beard.

Look who's really retired?



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