Entries For: October 2010
When I walked the Mountains-to-Sea Trail through Stone Mountain State Park, I started to realize how many signs there were that said No, Prohibited and Danger. Maybe it's because Sharon and I had been walking on Blue Ridge Parkway land for so long without any Danger signs.
If you took these signs seriously, you'd never get out of your car - the park sounds so dangerous. How are we going to encourage more families to enjoy the outdoors when there are so many NOs?
These signs are in every state Park in North Carolina, so I don't want to single out Stone Mountain.I'm sure I missed a few and I'm not displaying duplicates.
There are still so many places to explore in Western North Carolina. Not all are dramatic or demanding. Some are just pleasant.
An educational forest is just that - a managed forest to show visitors the importance of forestry. This forest has about five miles of trail and one good hill which the signs call "strenuous". It has picnic areas, a building full of exhibits and talking trees.
Talking trees are recordings placed on the trail that you start with a push of a button. Each recording describes a specific tree. See Cameron enjoying pushing button, though he's too young to understand what the "tree" is saying.
The educational forest brings in school children. I can imagine the worksheet and notebooks being filled in as the kids explore the forest.
One exhibit caught my fancy. It shows the various altitudes in North Carolina.
- Mountains - 2000 to 6000 ft. - Asheville, Boone, Mt. Mitchell
- Foothills - 1000 to 2000 ft. - Lenoir, Mt. Airy
- Piedmont - 600 to 1000 ft. - Charlotte, Winston-Salem
- Lowlands - 150 to 600 ft. - Raleigh-Durham
- Coastal Plains - sea level - Wilmington, Goldsboro
I did take a picture of this display but mostly I'm glad I can just walk.
Starting with 460.2 miles, 75,850 ft. ascent
Devils Garden Overlook MP 235.7 to Stone Mountain State Park
9.9 miles, 1,500 ft. ascent (3,000 ft. descent)
We're all bundled up though we know we'll take off almost everything soon. This is where the MST leaves the Parkway. We have been following the Parkway since we left the Smokies over 300 MST miles ago, so this spot is a landmark for us. For this occasion, I saved my GPS trace for the day. Usually I only carry a GPS for mileage during the day and altitude gain.
The trail starts up, over a hill and we soon enter Stone Mountain State Park at its northwest corner. A sign warns us that the MST has been rerouted for "your safety" but it doesn't say when.
Was it this year? A decade ago? We have no idea if Scot's instructions are for the old trail or the current one. We turn left as the sign indicates and follow an old road.
We pass two blazes close together but then nothing. The road goes down, curving around Scott Ridge. I feel uneasy at the lack of blazes but we haven't passed any other trails so we have no other choice. We pass an old cabin in ruins and now we know that we're following current directions.
After five miles of down, down, down, down, we reach the backcountry parking and registration area. Two guys are organizing their gear around their truck getting ready to leave. They've been coming here for years and tell us that the reroute was done at least six years ago. Why is the park still talking about a reroute? That's just confusing.
"So what was unsafe about the old route?" I ask the guys.
One man had an old topo map which showed an old aerial tramway
"It was extremely steep," one says, "because the trail was underneath the tramway. A local man came back from World War II, saw aerial tramways in Europe, and thought he could replicate it here."
According to a website on Trailjournals.com, it was supposed to be “the world’s longest and highest gondola span.” The tram crossed 2,800 feet over the Bullhead Creek chasm- 1,052 feet in the air. People could ride from Mahogany Rock Mountain to Scott ridge for 50 cents. There was a visitor’s center, restrooms, and gift shop on Scott ridge. But that's all gone now except for a confusing sign.
We walk on the road to the Hiker Parking area, passing Widow Creek Trail and start on the Stone Mountain Loop Trail, taking it counterclockwise. The MST takes us to the elaborate staircase which leads to Stone Mountain Falls.
Warning signs are everywhere, trashing the beautiful surroundings. Passing a chimney, the trail goes down to a picnic area and back to the visitor center where I had left my car.
Cumulative after Day 40, 469.1 miles, 77,350 ft. ascent
The day was not over. When we arrived to my car parked in front of the Stone Mountain Visitor Center, I found a hand-written note from Edward Farr, Superintendent of Stone Mountain State Park on my dashboard. It said:
Overnight parking is prohibited in state parks. Each vehicle must be accounted for each night to prevent leaving a visitor that may be injured or lost on a trail. A search involving on duty and off duty staff had begun for you but was ended when we spoke to a family member. Had we not been able to contact a family member the search would have continued through the night and only ended when we found you.
It was signed Edward Farr Park Superintendent and accompanied by a warning notice containing my vehicle registration.
I was mortified. A search for me while I was safely tucked up in a Sparta motel? Why? Why would they search for someone who was not declared missing?
I went up to the Visitor Center to look for Ed Farr but he wasn't in his office. I talked to one of his subordinates, also a ranger, who explained that they had to look for people unless they registered their car and parked in the backcountry lot. But we had passed that parking area five miles away. It would have messed up our whole day.
When I got home, I found out from Lenny that Superintendent Farr had called our home a little after 8 P.M. The park gates close at 8 P.M. so he got concerned about my car on his last sweep of the park.
It just happened that I talked to Lenny a little before 8 P.M. Lenny told Farr that he had just talked to me and that I was hiking to my car tomorrow.
I sent Farr an email explaining that we placed the car after the visitor center closed. I used the word "mortified" again at the thought of anyone searching for me - Sharon and I were experienced hikers.
I told him that "I know that these are North Carolina State Park procedures but I'm truly surprised that you are required to start a search if no one has reported a missing person."
It will be a long time until we reach another state park on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Starting with 446.2 miles, 73,050 ft. ascent
NC 18 to Devil's Garden Overlook, MP 235.7
14 miles, 2800 ft. ascent
It's so luxurious to leave the Freebourne at 7:10 and not have to drive anywhere. I eat a homemade granola bar for breakfast in the room along with several old pieces of apples and diluted apple juice.
It's still dark so we walk on Miller Rd. with flashlights in hand. We pass Miller Campground and reach the commuter part of the Parkway. Cars and trucks fly out of side roads without stopping at stop signs. There’s even a small section which is a 4-lane divided road.
We pass small roads and walk on the Parkway until Basin Cove Overlook, MP 244.7. That’s the beginning of Doughton Park (MP 238.5 to MP 244.7), a recreation area managed by the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The reason we're walking this section now is that the Parkway will be closed starting next month. In the worst-case scenario, this section of Parkway will be closed to all traffic from November 1 through April 29, 2011 from Milepost 241 near Doughton Park to Milepost 244.9 at Basin Cove Parking Overlook. The stone guard walls, which have been sinking since they were installed in the 1930s, will be replaced.
But first they have to install sediment protector, a snake like tube of shavings that they’re putting below the road so that sediments can’t ruin the vegetation.
Here, the MST follows Bluff Mountain Trail, a 7.5 mile trail on the ridge. We go through pasture land with cow patties and barbed wire fences, past two overlooks and start the climb to the top of Bluff Mountain (see the top picture).
At the top, visitors stroll through mountain meadows. The view is wonderful. We think we can see Table Rock and Hawksbill in Linville Gorge due south, maybe even Mt. Mitchell. Once on top, we walk on a mowed path through grasses up to a lone tree. It’s windy.
Bluff Lodge is in the distance. We follow the trail down to the coffee shop. I make up for my poor breakfast with a real lunch of four vegetable sides and great cornbread.
We continue down to the campground. While Sharon is behind a bush, I see an old woman coming up the trail. She’s bundled up as if it’s the middle of winter.
“Hi,” I say. “How are you doing?” There are so few hikers that I try to talk to everyone.
“You scared me,” she says, then sits down on the trail. “I didn’t see you and I was deep in thought.” It seems like she might faint. She's wearing a Camelback water system on her back but she has the tube placed across neck in such a way that she looks like she has an oxygen tube.
Surely I don’t seem that scary. At this point, Sharon comes trotting down the trail and I make sure that this woman sees her. “Oh she might scare me too.”
“No, she’s very friendly,” I tell her.
By now Sharon is concerned as well.
“This is my last hike,” the woman says.
“Until the next time,” Sharon says.
“No, my last hike. I’m going blind.”
“Oh, are you by yourself?”
“Yes,” and she starts climbing up the trail again. We wonder how she got here. Did she drive here herself? I’d rather meet her on the trail than on the highway.
We go through the campground to Brinegar Cabin, a historic cabin on the road. The parking area is full but almost no one is walking down to the cabin. Is it too much for them? One couple finally comes down to take our picture.
When we leave Doughton Park, the trail is now between Parkway land and NC Gamelands.We're on Gamelands property in hunting season? Yikes... I don’t have any orange to wear.
I had forgotten my orange vest and on the way to meet Sharon, I stopped at a Wal-Mart to look for something orange. The smallest orange vests they had were men's large so I bought a shocking pink women's muscle shirt which I tied to my pack as a warning to hunters.
We didn't hear any shots but maybe that's because I was scaring them off with my pink shirt.
Cumulative after Day 39, 460.2 miles, 75,850 ft. ascent
Starting with 430.9 miles, 71,150 ft. ascent
NC 16 to NC 18 on the Blue Ridge Parkway
15.3 miles, 1,900 ft. ascent
For this section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Sharon and I stayed at the house of a Friends of the MST board member, "B" Townes outside of Wilkesboro. It wasn't really close to the start of our section but you couldn't beat the hospitality.
It's a wet and dark day as we creep out of "B"'s house on Wednesday. Sharon and I drive up NC 16 in the rain to reach the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our packs are heavier than usual since we're going to spend the night on the trail. Well, not really on the trail since you can't camp on the Parkway. Instead we'll be staying at the Freeborne Motel, right on the trail at NC 18 in Laurel Springs.
The trail crisscrosses the Parkway and lots of small roads. This is not the pristine scenic road that we're used to further south. Here small roads feed onto the Parkway and it's obvious that people use the Parkway to commute.
Plenty of tourists drive this section for the colors as well. We feel that we're in the colors.
Red maples, yellowing Frazier magnolias, red oaks, though no sour woods here - and some poison ivy. At one point, rhododendrons take over, as if they were planted.
We have to keep watching Scot Ward's instructions as the MST changes from trail to back roads to Parkway. We're above the Parkway and paralleling it at many points. The trail encircles the Northwest Trading Post, a low quality gift shop and snack bar which sits squarely on the Parkway. No point going in since we wouldn't buy anything now. We'd have to carry it for two days.
We pass two cemeteries gates, including the Sheets Cemetery. Later we pass Jesse Sheets Cabin, down the hill from the Parkway, built in 1815.
It took us all day to walk from NC 16 to NC 18 but on the map, it's less than two inches.
At 4:30 P.M., we reach downtown Laurel Springs, the motorcycle capital of the Parkway.
The community consists of two motels (only one open), two antique shops (only one open) and a country store.
When we check into the Freeborne Motel doesn't serve breakfast now, though their website said that it did. So I head to the Country Store which has a sad selection of chips, beer, cookies, and snacks. I pick out a package of peanut butter crackers for 49 cents - 240 calories for 49 cents. Those are cheap calories. But the store carries my first book, Hiking the Carolina Mountains. Now that's a surprise. Of course, I sign the only copy they have.
Next, I wander into the cavernous antique shop next to the motel. Blondie, the owner, carries original movie posters including one of Danielle Darrieux, the World War II movie star I was named after. The store also has old country music records, toys, and just old stuff. It's obviously a destination and Blondie seems to be doing quite well.
The Freeborne Motel is also a destination, popular with motorcyclists. I thought that Sharon and I would be the only restaurant patrons but the dining room and bar are busy. A large party sits at a long table and the bar stools are all occupied. A musician sings old country standards and the two waiters are rushed off their feet. Near our table is a framed review of the restaurant that appeared in Our State magazine this past summer. They loved the food and the atmosphere and so did we. I made my first video of the bar at the Freeborne Motel. I was going to load it on Youtube but I lost patience with creating an account.
After dinner, I stay to socialize at the bar and tell folks about the MST which goes right through the community on Miller Road. "Look for the white circles on Miller Rd.," I say.
Cumulative after Day 38, 446.2 miles, 73,050 ft. ascent
The leaf color may have peaked around Oconaluftee Visitor Center but not the visitors. They keep pouring in.
Most visitors have no idea of what to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They've come here and they expect us, the folks at the visitor desk, to plan their vacation for them. And I do!
Questions and answers:
- What is there to see here? You're in the most visited park in the country and there are 800 miles of trails.
- Where do I pay my entrance fee? You're in the only major national park with no entrance fee. But if you'd like to contribute, we'd be ever so grateful. I point them to a donation box put up by Friends of the Smokies.
- Is there any place to do an easy hike? If they want something real easy, it's the Oconaluftee River Trail, just past the Mountain Farm Museum. Otherwise, I suggest Bradley Fork Trail or Kephart Prong.
- Waterfalls? Now that's not a straight forward question. There are no waterfalls off the road. The easiest waterfall to reach is Mingo Falls, on the Cherokee Reservation. Yes, we suggest things out of the park. Mingo Falls is on Big Cove Road and requires only a 1/4 mile walk.
- How do I get to Cades Cove? I show them where we are at Oconaluftee and where Cades Cove is, two hours away. As part of our tool kit, we have official mileages and times from OVC and many other places. I don't have to estimate. But I do question if they really want to do that drive (usually it's already noon, when they get here) and if the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill would not satisfy their hunger for the history of settlers in the area. But they've heard of the Cades Cove loop and for the most part, they're going.
- Where can we eat in the park? There's no place to eat, drink or get gas in the park. The gateway towns, Cherokee, Gatlinburg and Townsend provide all those amenities.
I roved Bradley Fork Trail in the afternoon. Plenty of people on the trail with different ambitions. Several backpackers, day hikers doing the Smokemont look, more day hikers just going up to the bridge and back and a few photographers going maybe a quarter mile.
On the way back, I met Dan on the Trail Crew driving a park service vehicle. He and his colleagues are working on the Appalachian Trail up Hughes Ridge and are camping up there. He had to get down and drove on the trail. But the gate was closed and he didn't have a key. I offered to help him by going to the ranger station but he had radioed his supervisor so I left him. I hope he's not still there.
Today, Monday October 18, is the first day of bear hunting season in Western North Carolina.
Western Bear Season
Oct. 18 – Nov. 20
Dec. 13 – Jan. 1
Western Deer Season
Bow-and-arrow: Sept. 13 – Oct. 2 and Oct. 18 – Nov. 20
Muzzleloader: Oct. 4 – Oct. 16
Gun: Nov. 22 to Dec. 11
See all the details at the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.
Most people consider the Bear Hunting season as the hunting season. But really you can hunt something all year round.
You can only hunt in National Forests and never on Sundays. So if you hike in Pisgah or Nantahala, make sure to wear orange and stay on trails.
It is always important to know where you are in life, but it is particularly important during hunting season.
Yesterday Lenny and I visited Cowpens National Battlefield in upstate South Carolina, about 90 minutes from Asheville. This day trip was part of my birthday celebration.
There are at least two reasons to visit battlefield sites. One is to understand the battle details and another is to see a National Park unit. I belong to the second category but that doesn't mean I didn't prepare for it or enjoyed the details.
Cowpens was one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War in the South. We associate South Carolina with the Civil War because the war started there with the blowing up of Fort Sumter. Yet there are more Revolutionary "action sites" in South Carolina than in any other state.
As its name implied, Cowpens was a field used by farmers to graze cows on their way to the Charleston market. But on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan, a Southern revolutionary hero led a group of Continentals (paid army soldiers) and militia (real volunteers) to a victory against a large force of British soldiers.
The enemy were not just Loyalists but members of the British army, the best in the world. It was a one hour battle which seemed almost choreographed to me. It was as if the Brits and the Colonial army said "I'll meet you behind the school yard. Bring your friends and be prepared to fight."
The visitor center houses an exhibit of soldier uniforms, a movie and toy soldiers. This is a children's dream visitor center. They can play soldier and find other toys. I loved the movie, a recap of the Cowpens battle by a grandfather telling his wide eyed grandson.
After enjoying the visitor center and the staff who were funny and knowledgeable, Lenny and I wandered on the one-mile trail to see the battlefield. What a pastoral setting. See above.
Then we drove the three-mile look road. We had lunch in the picnic area and stopped at the Scruggs House. Scruggs bought some of the Cowpens land in 1805. Cowpens became a Battlefield Site in 1929 on just an acre of land. The cabin remained private until the National Park Service bought it from a Scruggs family member and expanded the side to what it is today.
According to National Park statistics, the average length of a visit to Cowpens is 45 minutes. We spent three hours at the site. I may not wait until another birthday to see the other South Carolina park units.
Starting with 424.1miles, 68,650 ft. ascent
Kistler Highway to Blue Blazed Trail on Wolf Pit Road
6.8 miles (round trip), 2,500 ft. ascent
With all our drama on our last MST trip, Sharon and I had not yet crossed the Linville River. There was a 3.3 mile section from Kistler Highway to the blue blazed trail which starts at Wolf Pit Rd. This small section was gnawing at me. I could see us getting further and further away from the mountains and thinking "I've got to do this small section."
Well, it's not gnawing at me anymore. Today, we met at the Forest Service Office for Pisgah National Forest Grandfather Mountain District to hike this section. In order to leave a car at the Forest Service station, Sharon had to give them a page full of information and impress on the clerks staffing the desk that we were only leaving the car there for the day. Her reply was "it's going to rain."
When her coworker heard that we were going to walk the MST and cross the Linville River, she wrinkled her nose and said that "we'll be walking on private property". Neither statement was true. The weather was beautiful and the private property signs were on the side of the trail, not the trail itself. The people working for Pisgah Forest seems to discourage use of their resource. Those at the desk know little and they certainly have not explored the section of forest they're supposed to advise visitors on. Today was no exception.
We start on Kistler Highway and climb to Pinnacle Overlook, a wooden platform. It offers an exceptional view of Shortoff Mountain, Table Rock, Hawksbill and the Linville River. The river is a long, long way down there. Lake James is spread out below.
We had decided not to shuttle to Wolf Pit Rd. It would have taken at least two extra hours of driving - we wanted to hike instead. We start down the steep trail, knowing that we will have to go back up in a few hours. Acorns act like metal balls and at one point I slip and scrape my elbow. But the colors are outstanding. If this is not the peak of color, it's darn close. The trail alternates between a wide trail and a forest road - down, down, down and a couple of ups to break up the monotony. The trail is well blazed.
Finally we reach the Linville River. I had worried about this crossing and lost sleep over it last night. But the river is shallow; it's a muddy start but the water stays below my knees. Sharon and I trade cameras so we can take pictures of each other crossing the river. I even stand in the middle of the river taking scenery shots.
But the river crossing is not the end of the trail going east. We then need to climb up to reach the blue blazed trail. Once across the river, we see signs of the 2007 fire. The trail could use some serious maintenance. We see several blue blazes and declare that we're ready to go back.
On the way back, we notice a large campsite on the river. We're close to a forest road and it's obvious that people drive here. The campsite has two chairs on the banks.
Here the trail skirts the tiny section of private land that we were warned about. Soon we start our serious climb - no diversion, no telling stories or jokes, no singing; we need all our breath for the climb.
A sign on a tree says "Wolf Pit .2 Kistler Hwy 2.5 miles". Another trail leads into the woods and we certainly don't have the energy to chase it down. We keep climbing.
Somewhere on this climb, I realize that it's a good thing that we came out today. Bear hunting season starts on Monday. Unlike popular parts of the Pisgah District, hunters may figure that no one really hikes in this section of the gorge.
Finally we're back at the Pinnacle, a pile of rocks that gives us a 360 degree view. We climb and snap away. Three young people with a beautiful dog follow us and take our pictures.
It feels good to finally put the Linville Gorge map away. Lenny says that finishing Linville Gorge is like finishing the 100 miles of wilderness in Maine on the Appalachian Trail. We now know that we'll finish the trail
Conquering Linville Gorge means that we probably finished the most difficult physical parts of the MST. But I emphasize physical; the logistical challenges are just starting.
Cumulative after Day 37, 430.9 miles, 71,150 ft. ascent
Today was an outstanding fall day - sunny, crisp, the trees full of colors.
I led a Carolina Mountain Club hike to Ramsey Cascades. Seven of us started on Ramsey Cascades Trail in the Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One fellow had driven from Atlanta to do this hike.
Holly Demouth, Director of Friends of the Smokies on the North Carolina side, came as a CMC guest. Friends of the Smokies is a fund raising organization that supports the Park. At one break, she talked a little about the work that the Friends did, especially the Trails Forever program. She is so enthusiastic.
Trails Forever was the main fundraising initiative connected to Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 75th anniversary celebration. The Trails Forever endowment will fund an additional permanent trail maintenance work crew to support trail improvement projects along the 800+ miles of hiking trails inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was particularly apt that we hiked Ramsey Cascade Trail since it had been rehabilitated recently using Trails Forever funds.
The volunteer crew had put in rock steps and built a large bridge.
Of course, all these improvements have attracted many more visitors on this trail. But that's OK. It's there for everyone to enjoy.
The cascades flowed copiously. We reached the top at about one o'clock and had half a lunch there since bees were circling our food. We enjoyed the trip down while meeting many hikers going up in the afternoon.
After I left the group, I drove through the park in a beautiful sea of color. See the photo above.