Saturday, July 25, 2015

The real Shut-In Trail - a well-kept secret

This beautiful boulevard of a trail leading from Buck Springs Overlook toward a clash with the Parkway is the original Shut-In trail, yet it is not marked or identified by any sign, and it is not part of the MST.  In my humble opinion that is a criminal offense.

I found it.  I found a big chunk of the original Shut-In trail between Buck Springs Lodge (the high point where it starts right at the stable area behind the lodge) all the way down to Elk Pasture Gap where the MST finally actually follows the old original Shut-In trail from there to the base of Ferrin Knob.  From there on east to Asheville I have no idea where the original trail went.  Even the memory of it seems to have disappeared.

This is how the trail looks from the edge of the popular Buck Springs Overlook parking area, which is always crowded with people.  The MST plows up a ridge just to the left of this view, and the stupendous panorama of the valley below is just to the right, so this grassy area gets little notice.  I missed it completely the first time here.  There are no signs, and obviously few people bother to walk down here.

Okay, back to the great news.  Following a clue from a park ranger and hints from a close up look at the Google Maps in 'terrain mode', I found the old original road bed. (You can see more of the trace on the map below.) It takes off in both directions from Buck Springs Overlook, yet the MST doesn't use it.  Going westward the nice, seldom used but well-groomed grassy trail, with old mossy stone work, leads to the stable area.

Approach to trail's end at the stable area behind Buck Springs Lodge
The wide, level stable area buttressed by fine masonry work.  Note how little-used this area is even though the path to the Lodge just 100 yards away is a heavily trampled tourist mecca.

And from the stable there are very lightly-used steps that lead up to the lodge site itself.  None of this has any signage identifying it.  The park ranger told me it was there, or I never would have known.  It is as if they are deliberately keeping this pretty space a secret.

In the other direction from Buck Springs Overlook the wide road-bed is also well groomed, and follows a gentle grade down until it abruptly ends right above the Buck Springs Parkway Tunnel.

The old route abruptly ends here, directly above a Parkway Tunnel.  Beyond the original old carriage road has been obliterated for half a mile or so.  But new trail could have and should have been built to connect to further undamaged trail just down the road, in order properly preserve and honor the trail's history.

From there to the Little Pisgah Ridge tunnel about a half mile beyond, the old road bed has been completely obliterated by the parkway construction.  But then there's another perfectly preserved section of the old Shut-In trail route around Little Pisgah ridge.  It departs from the parkway right at the upper end of the next tunnel.  Note the yellow blaze on the rock.

Half of this remnant of the original road bed is now used by the lightly traveled, yellow-blazed Little Pisgah Ridge trail.  The old deep cuts into the bedrock are visible here just as they are in the lead photo up top.

But that trail abandons the road bed and drops down the ridge line.  From there I had to bushwhack along the still-obvious wide road bed with deep vertical cuts into bedrock until it came under the influence of the Parkway construction again and appeared to be covered over by the tailing debris from the new road up above.

Most of the bushwhacking wasn't this easy.  But the tangled parts don't make good photos.

That's where I ended my exploration, having established my 'proof-of-concept'.

So ... WHY!  Why does the MST fail to follow the ***REAL*** Shut-In trail here?  It could not have been any easier to cut new trail up and over Little Pisgah Mountain's pointless summit (with no views).  And why did they put a sign identifying the Shut-In trail at the start of that imposter trail, yet fail to identify the real trail with any signs at all?  My answer -- there's probably a disconnect between the majority of trail builders and users and those few who cherish history and the provenance of the trails they walk.  For most hikers, I suppose, trail is trail.  An old, venerable carriage path that has been in continuous use for nearly a century and a quarter is still just a boot-worn yuppie walkway through the woods.  Kinda makes me a little sad.

Here's the map of the bit of unheralded original Shut-In trail that I explored today.  The red 'pins' are links to a bunch more significant documentary photos.  Check them out.

Original 1892 Shut-In trail fragments at EveryTrail
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hiking the Shut-In Trail, built in 1892

Sunrise from the Mills River Valley overlook, launching point for one of the original segments of the Shut-In trail.  Just follow the trail east from the overlook and watch for the stone work on the steep side-hill sections.

George Washington Vanderbilt's original Biltmore Estate was big.  It included hundreds of thousands of mountain acres around and west of Asheville, NC.  It was so big, in fact, that when he built a carriage trail from one end to the other it was seventeen miles long.  It connected the Biltmore Estate's main grounds near the French Broad River at 2000 feet elevation with his Buck Spring Hunting lodge at 5000 feet elevation near the present location of the Pisgah Inn.

The Mountains to Sea Trail follows the general route of the Shut-In trail from end to end.  The problem is that much of the original route of the trail has been lost, probably due to logging and other activity after the land was sold, mostly to the US Forest Service, and especially to the ravages of progress.  When the Blue Ridge Parkway was built, I'm sure that parts of the original route were destroyed.

But a few sections of the original carriage road do survive. The photo above is not much to look at, but it's the best example I have of the original stonework that buttresses the trail.  There are just a few miles of original trail still identifiable by this construction technique--something volunteer trail builders do not have the time or resources to do these days.

I wish I could learn more.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains I was fascinated by all the various stories of the trails in the area.  The grand-daddy of them all is the Crawford Path from the Mt. Washington Hotel up to the summit.  Parts of this trail have been in continuous use for more than 200 years now.  Unfortunately Vanderbilt did not live long, and it appears that the Shut-In trail was not in continuous use after his death.  I've asked several sources for more information on the early history of the trail and of its evolution, but have little to no concrete information.

The Shut-In trail was built way back then, and what we hike today still has the same name.  The name comes from the rim of ridges that it follows, which 'shut in' (make remote) the series of valleys to the north.  Parts of today's Shut-In Trail clearly do not follow any logical carriage road.  For example today's trail goes honking straight up to the summit of Ferrin Knob following the fire tower access road (the fire tower has been dismantled - the foundation footings are all that remain--see above).  I doubt seriously if Vanderbilt was interested in having his horses and carriages do such Pointless-Ups-and-Downs.  The segments with the stone work follow contours around the peaks rather than going up one side and down the other.  There's one sign along the trail that, I think, makes the distinction.  Today's trail is rightly called the 'Shut-In Ridge Trail', and makes no real pretense that it is the same as the old original trail.  I'll have to leave it at that.

Below is a map of the route of the current trail, along with some return-leg walks along the Parkway.

MST, the Shut-In Trail at EveryTrail
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hiking High - Graveyard Fields to Mt. Pisgah


It's cool to be high.

North Carolina in July can be hot and steamy--at least where most people live.  But not in the mountains.  Up on the 'Mountains' portion of NC's Mountains-to-Sea Trail there's relief.  High elevation means cool temperature.  The rule-of-thumb is that for every 1000 feet of elevation you gain, you lose 5 degrees Fahrenheit.  In my recent hikes there, I had days where I barely broke a sweat.  The kids who were dipping in the pools at 'Skinny dip falls' shown above, were shivering.

The key is to stay high.  The segment of trail I'm covering in this report starts high and ends high and never gets lower than 3700 feet.  Graveyard Fields is a broad valley floor above 5000 feet in elevation surrounded by 6000 foot ridges.  The Pisgah Inn, a popular resort for outdoors-lovers, sits on a ridge at nearly 5000 feet.  Between the two the trail dips down to the lower 4000's to pass the popular and noisy cascade and swimming hole shown above and to follow a quiet, serene century-old path called the Buck Springs Trail that once brought visitors to the rustic old original Pisgah Inn.

Graveyard Fields is a name that evokes Halloween imagery.  It is said that the place got its name because after the area was clear cut nearly a century ago, the remnant stumps grew over with moss such that the whole valley looked like an old neglected cemetery.  The MST doesn't traverse the valley, but swings around the opposite side of it from the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Here's the view back across the valley to the parkway.

As I often do, I hiked a segment of trail then return via the Parkway where there are more frequent views.  Here's my favorite view among many--this is called Looking Glass Rock.

The expansive views contrast nicely with some of the cool 'Rhododendron Tunnels'.  Here's a fine example from a popular piece of trail close to the Pisgah Inn:

During the heat of the day, even at this altitude, I preferred being in these shady sections rather than out in the blazing sun.  Of all the hiking in this section, I enjoyed the Buck Springs Trail the best.  It took me far from the road noise of the Parkway, as did the trail around Graveyard Fields, but here I was in peaceful hardwood forest on a former roadbed that meandered back and forth along the steep side slope keeping a very steady incline.  This, I am told, was an old motor road built before the Blue Ridge Parkway was constructed.  It's hard for me to imagine that vehicles could have used this narrow path.  I didn't take pictures other than this somewhat blurry fungus shot.  The path is behind.

But there were places where the side-slope was steep and the footpath was barely two feet wide.  Then below the Inn there were a series of eight sharp switchbacks, so sharp that it appears to me that vehicles would have had to alternate between forward and reverse as they made the switches.  Ah, well ... rain and snow have been at work for nearly a century since the days when Model T's bumped their way along this road.

The country store beside the Inn was a welcome oasis on an afternoon that felt hot because of the blazing sun.  I stopped in and bought a bottle of ice cold orange juice.

The cool was such a high!

Here's the map of my wanderings.

MST - Graveyard Fields to Mt. Pisgah at EveryTrail
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Thursday, July 9, 2015

MST hiking, Nantahala National Forest to Black Balsam

Slow but steady trail user on a damp morning in Nantahala National Forest

I'm back in the high mountains after a two week break to take care of business and then to follow the US Women's National Soccer team as they won the World Cup.  Yay!  Women's soccer is near and dear to my heart because it was by becoming a soccer dad, when we found that my daughter had a natural skill at the game, that I developed an interest in and eventually a love of the game.  Before she played I had no more interest in world football than the average American, which is to say 'next to none'.

Anyhow, to the subject at hand.  This report covers a few days of hiking, some of which I did two weeks ago, but most was a long 18 mile day hiking remote winding trail for 12 miles one way and the Blue Ridge Parkway back to the start.

This section of trail is little used, and as I walked it I was imagining that this was probably like the Appalachian Trail looked back in the 1950's when pioneers like Earl Shaffer and Emma Gatewood hiked it.  And it drives home all the problems with trail over-use--erosion being one of the major ones.  This was much more of a bona-fide wilderness experience, and I felt blessed to have experienced it.

Scenery was secondary to the up-close experience along the trail.  Summer wild flowers were abundant, including the rosebay rhododendron.  Here's a sampling.

Give life half a chance and it will find a way

Part of this hike was in Middle Prong Wilderness (yes, it's Pisgah National Forest - I crossed this jurisdictional boundary near the end).  They don't allow trail blazes in wilderness areas, so finding my way was a bit of a challenge.  But I did run across this sign--must have been 'grandfathered' in.

I found that all the MST white paint blazes were painted over with tree-bark-gray paint.  Excellent.  Mark trees with paint to enforce the 'don't mark trees with paint' rule.  Only humans could come up with that.

Where possible, I'm hiking short segments of trail and trying to find all the viable side trail access points.  One of them, I think, turned out not to be such a good idea.  The Art Loeb Trail connects from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the MST in just 0.19 miles.  Sounded like a good prospect.  Problem is that in that 0.19 miles the trail climbs more than 300 feet up to a nearly sheer cliff visible from the Parkway.  The trail follows the ridge line seen in this shot.  The trailhead at the parkway is just right of center.

And here's the view from the top.  I could have got a better shot, but was afraid to get closer to the drop.

It was 'fun' in a sadistic sort of way, but if I had it to do over, I would have used the Devil's Courthouse access that I had overlooked because the trail passes over a Parkway tunnel and comes down on the other side.  Here's the parking area and the Devil's Courthouse rock formation.

Finally, here's an art shot.  Can a forest be so verdant, thick, and alive that it looks dead (from underneath)?

Below is a map of the meanderings covered in this report.

MST - Nantahala Forest to Black Balsam at EveryTrail
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

An unexpected trail encounter

Hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the mountains of North Carolina is a different experience from hiking the Appalachian Trail.  On the latter you're sure to meet other hikers several times every day. As you hike the MST you might come in contact with tourists on or near the Blue Ridge Parkway, but unless you're hiking with friends or family the 'in-the-woods' hiking tends to be a solitary experience.

At least it had been for me ... so far.

Today, as I hiked the section of trail between Balsam Gap and the Nantahala National Forest, the treadway looked to be very seldom used.  There were full grown weeds popping up where feet should have trampled them, yet they were untouched.  There were rocky sections where all the rocks a hiker would step on were moss-covered.

It was early afternoon.  I was meandering among the upright weeds and mossy rocks, pushing my face through plenty of pristine unbroken spider silk, remarking to myself that it had surely been two or three weeks since the last person walked this way when ... voila!  A wonderful apparition appeared (see photo above). 

Not only was it another hiker, it was an MST thru-hiker!  Lorie Hansen was within three days of finishing her cross-state trek.

Of course we had lots to talk about, covering MST topics ranging from the scary 2 1/4 mile Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks to the fresh new piece of trail coming down from Waterrock Knob, which Lorie missed because her trail guide directed her down the Parkway.

We talked about bears and mutual MST acquaintances, and of course we exchanged notes on what each could expect in the next few miles.  Finally we exchanged photos and then headed our separate ways, back into our respective cocoons of solitude.  Here's the photo Lorie took of me.

That was a delightful encounter.  Meeting Lorie made my day.  And that's saying something, because the day was chock full of interesting experiences.  It began with this delightful mountain summer sunrise:

I started the day hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway for six miles, passing through Pinnacle Ridge Tunnel early enough that the tourist traffic was non-existent.

I encountered hillsides covered with blooming mountain laurel and flame azalea,

and came across this remarkable specimen of Bowmans Root, also called Indian Physic and sometimes Fawns Breath - Gillenia trifoliata is the botanical name.

Usually this perennial is much smaller and more spindly.  This plant was like a cloud of five-pointed stars.  At the time I was thinking that it would be the highlight of the day.

Then I walked the MST through the woods for about seven miles back to my starting point.  Before I met Lorie I encountered another rarity.  On the Appalachian Trail maintainers often adorn their work with the "AT" logo.  Here I found my first and only example of such a Maintainer's mark on the ...

At the end of today, when I was back to my van, I explored two access trails.  My 'mission' this summer is to hike this mountain section of the MST via a series of out-and-back day hikes, much the way I did the Appalachian Trail.  And I've made it part of that mission to scout out as many of the access points as I can, so that prospective day hikers who come after me can have as many options as possible.

Along this seven mile stretch of MST I found two access trails.  One follows an old abandoned road that passes under the Parkway.

Parking for this access trail is at Standing Rock Overlook.  Here's the standing rock itself--an impressive natural monument.

The other access point is a less used but clear trail that follows a stream up from the Parkway just below the Village of Saunook Overlook.  In my last report I had mentioned the Hood Road access, which is about a mile east of Balsam Gap, and the actual starting point for today's hiking.  On the other end the MST comes within sight of three Parkway Overlooks--Grassy Ridge Mine, Licklog Gap, and Doubletop Mountain.  The last access point covered in this report is where the MST eastbound enters Nantahala National Forest.  It does so on an old forest road that comes out to the Parkway at this 'T'-shaped barrier.  There is not a paved overlook here, but there is room for a vehicle or two to park.

Before hiking and reporting on more of the MST eastward to Asheville and Mt. Mitchell, I had to return home to take care of personal business including several unexpected twists -- two flat tires (yes, not one but two), a mal-functioning air conditioner in my condo, and an a possible Post Office mail problem.  All the business is taken care of now, so look for more MST reports in the very near future.

Here's a map of the Parkway - MST hiking covered in this report, with the red 'pins' marking places where I took photos.

MST - Balsam Gap to Nantahala National Forest at EveryTrail
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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Back on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Waterrock Knob to Balsam Gap

Looking west from Waterrock Knob, the beginning of a new hiking adventure

One year later, almost to the day, since I left the MST to take a shortcut to the Appalachian Trail at my favorite spot - the Roan Highlands - I'm back to hike some more of North Carolina's distinctive state-wide trail.

The Mountains-to-Sea trail is one of a dozen or more state-wide trails in the United States, but I'd argue that no other state offers the degree of diversity that this trail has.  This nearly 1200 mile footpath takes the hiker from the palm trees of Topsail Island and the shifting sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge to the sub-Alpine forests atop the two of the three highest mountains east of the Mississippi River.

Like the Appalachian Trail, North Carolina's state trail is blessed with a long section along the high ridges of the Appalachian chain.  It follows the Blue Ridge, often using the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor, for about 350 miles.

Following the MST west to east, you hike from Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountain National Park to Devils Garden Overlook before leaving the Blue Ridge for good and dropping 2000 feet into Stone Mountain State Park.  Here begins a trek through Pilot Mountain State Park with its eerie monolith (reminiscent of Devils Tower in Wyoming) and then Hanging Rock State Park.

Next the trail takes a newly constructed route along Elkin Creek into the quaint town of Elkin.  There's a refreshing walk through this thriving downtown district full of quaint shops and restaurants, then the trail follows the Yadkin and Haw Rivers, passing north of Greensboro on trail along the shores of their watershed lakes and the Eno River, taking the riverwalk through the elegant historic town of Hillsborough, and trekking the long uninterrupted woods trails beside Falls Lake north of Raleigh. 

From Falls Lake Dam northeast of Raleigh the trail gets on a nearly forty-mile continuous paved greenway with several stunning footbridges over the Neuse River that make a continuous off-road experience along the river from Raleigh to Clayton.  Next comes a Greenway through Smithfield, and after that the extensive nature preserve called Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center, all along the Neuse River.

From there the foot trail carves a delightful arch through the coastal plain in an area with more environmental diversity than almost anywhere else in the USA.  This 350 mile section of trail has its own name:  The Coastal Crescent Trail.  I could go on and on about the distinctive natural and historical sights that the hiker explores along this section and beyond to the Outer Banks, but I've rambled too much already.

So ... back to the Mountains.

The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea trail is well-supported, well-run organization with hundreds of dedicated volunteers who are constantly working to build more trail and improve the hiking experience.  The hike I'm reporting here begins at Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway where volunteers have just opened a new two-mile section of trail at above 5500 feet of elevation.  It begins here at the Waterrock Knob visitor center parking lot ...

... with this tacit invitation to plunge into the wild.

It descends a long series of well constructed steps ...

... and follows the side slopes with grand views of the parkway below and the country beyond,

coming out at Fork Ridge Overlook on the Parkway.  After a short walk along the parkway I was glad to plunge back into the woods at Scott Creek Overlook.

The weather was hot.  It was the heat that beckoned me to abandon a month of beach walking and head to the high mountains.  In the lowlands afternoon heat index values soared well above 100 degrees.  Even up at 5000 feet, where physics of the atmosphere requires it to be about 25 degrees cooler, the hiking was hot and sweaty.  So it was wonderful to be able to soak my head in the stream above Woodfin Cascade.  The trail crosses a footbridge here,

and a short side trail down to the Parkway brings you to the cascade proper.  You have to look for this waterfall.  Even though it's basically right beside the Parkway, it's not easily visible from either the road or the trail and no signs at the Woodfin Cascade Overlook on the Parkway point you to where it's located.

That's where I ended the MST hiking for the day.  I found that I was out of shape.  Beach walking does not prepare one for up-down mountain hiking.  I am doing unsupported out-and-back day hikes on this trip, not really trying to get anywhere in any hurry.  I hiked back to Waterrock Knob via the Parkway.  If you want to see views, walking the Parkway is the way to do it.  On the trail you're in the proverbial 'green tunnel' all the time.  So, though it was hot, the road walk had its own unique pleasures.

The side road to Waterrock Knob visitor center is actually also part of the MST.  Where it joins the Parkway there is a division of trails.  West of here the MST offers two choices - a rugged mountain route through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and a 'River Valley Route' that actually begins with a very rugged ridge walk to Blackrock Mountain.  That route enters the woods right across from the Waterrock Knob/Parkway intersection, and is only marked with this generic post:

I'm leaving the hike west to Clingmans' Dome for another time.  For now I chose to head east.  Next day I started at Woodfin Cascades and did another series of out-and-back hikes, again taking the MST one way and the Parkway the other (except for a few lucky stretches where the Parkway *is* the MST)

This includes the bridge over US 74 and the railroad track at Balsam Gap.

There is also an extensive road walk on loose gravel Greenspire Drive - much more shady than the parkway but tougher under-foot.

I actually went a little beyond Balsam Gap to where the MST crosses Hood Road, a dirt road that passes under the Parkway.  Near here I crossed a stream with an inviting little cascade, just right for dunking my head into while in a standing position.

I continued on for a week of hiking, and even ran into an MST thru-hiker, who was within three days of finishing her hike.  Stay tuned for more reports.

Here's a map of the routes I walked as taken by my GPS.  The red 'pins' indicate locations of photos, including some not shown here.

MST - Waterrock Knob to Balsam Gap at EveryTrail
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